Film Review: Life, Above All

Story about a South African girl struggling against AIDS stigma feels too rational and distant.

The affliction that has been driving the conflict in Life, Above All is not mentioned by name until an hour into the movie. The characters’ euphemisms for disease have a surprising potency. With such limited information, both the sick and the healthy people around them become objects of suspicion. No one will admit to the cause of their illness, and the hidden origins of the epidemic mark relatives and friends as potential carriers.

The stoic heroine in these surroundings is Chanda, who lives in a comfortable house outside Johannesburg. Her baby sister has died, and her mother’s health is declining rapidly. As a smart, resourceful girl, she takes over the household responsibilities. Her innocence contrasts with those around her, who adhere to prejudices and face-saving techniques. Her neighbor, Mrs. Tafa, orders her to tell everyone her sister died of the “flu.” Also in the mix is her deadbeat, drunk stepfather, her two young step-siblings, and an unhelpful extended family.

Though Life, Above All was filmed on location using local actors speaking their native language, the tale has a generality to it that detracts from its impact. Everything appears to be in place, but there’s a lack of verisimilitude that’s palpable, if not identifiable. Chanda feels less like an individual and more like a symbol for Progress in the battle against AIDS. The only character to change is the well-meaning busybody Mrs. Tafa, whose final-act transformation offers hope that AIDS stigma will not be everlasting.

The original novel, Chanda’s Secrets, was aimed at young adults, but covers more graphic and political material, like sexual abuse and the heroine’s father’s death in the diamond mines. The laundry list of abuses has been reduced in Dennis Foon’s screenplay, but it still feels like a let-me-educate-you-about-a-problem movie in disguise. Chanda’s friend is a prostitute who services truckers, a character who seems inspired by the epidemiological studies that detail how AIDS spread along trucking routes. There are no new stories here, just a rehashing of events familiar to any Westerner who reads the news.

Chanda, played by first-time actress Khomotso Manyaka, often wears the equivalent of an emotional mask. Her expressions do not communicate exactly what’s going on in her head, which has an distancing effect. By establishing her as such a capable character from the outset, there’s little room for her to grow. Chanda sacrifices so much, but there’s never room for us to appreciate it. When she realizes her dreams of school have been crushed, the disappointment on her face barely registers. Even a small sign of emotion would have made the audience respond with an outpouring of empathy, but we get nothing. Chanda is just a vehicle through which the audience can observe the impact of the disease.

With the emotional temperature well below most people’s tear threshold, director Oliver Schmitz allows us to view all the hardship in rational, aggregate terms. He shoots suffering in shadow, or frames the characters through windows. Crisp images illuminate the surroundings. Despite this attention to the visual element, the story feels derivative. Chanda’s tale represents the millions of children affected by the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it doesn’t tell a story about one girl. With its lack of emotion and specific detail, it falls short of conveying the full tragedy of AIDS stigma.