Adapted from the novel, Chanda’s Secrets, by Allan Stratton, Life, Above All brings us the story of 12 year old Chanda, whose life changes very quickly when her mother falls ill. In trying to support her mother and look after her younger siblings, Chanda is forced to confront and challenge the values of those around her. Set in Elandsdoorn, a small town in South Africa, Chanda’s strength shines through as she takes a stand against those who see her mother’s illness as a punishment bringing ill omen to the community. In doing so, Chanda is forced to grapple with the complexities of life in her encounters with a variety of characters, including her best friend Esther who has been forced into prostitution, her drunken step-father Jonah, and Mrs Tafa, the superstitious but supportive neighbour who convinces Chanda’s mother to leave the town to seek refuge elsewhere. Whilst the film is framed by death – Chanda’s baby sister Sarah’s at the start of the film, and her mother, Lillian’s, at the end – it is ultimately a life-affirming film in which Chanda’s courage and strength help to shift the taboos and fears of her community.
Life, Above All confronts one of the key challenges that has faced southern Africa in recent decades: the AIDS pandemic. Arguably, however, the power of the film lies in the fact that AIDS is not overtly focused on. In a community in which fear and superstition about AIDS prevails, it is the unspoken, the innuendo and insinuation that predominate.
The Director, Oliver Schmitz, perhaps best known for his 1987 film, Mapantsula, was drawn to Allan Stratton’s novel, Chanda’s Secrets, on which this film is based, because, he suggests, 'it went beyond the narrowly conceived topic of AIDS in Africa'. He states: 'What really inspired me in reading the book were the values it represents, and the young girl’s commitment to helping outsiders and to fighting for her family and for justice'. It should be noted however, that there are two key changes from the novel – Schmitz sets the film very specifically in the small town of Elandsdoorn which gives the film cultural and linguistic specificity. This is clearly evident in the way that cinematography is used very evocatively to capture the physical environment and in the use of sePedi as the language of the film. Significantly, he also changes the age of Chanda from 16 in the novel to 12 in the film, bringing it closer to the reality of life for many children of that age in towns and villages like Elandsdoorn.
The haunting opening of the film, in which we hear a voice singing the hymn ‘The gates are opening’, is suggestive of life having gone slightly off-kilter: a low angle shot up through the branches of trees, life outside a darkened room framed by the window, a close-up of feet; colours are muted, the movement outside is slightly slow. It is in this slightly strange context that we first meet Chanda talking to an undertaker, choosing a coffin and making funeral arrangements for her baby sister who has died. It is clear that Chanda has had to take on such responsibilities and is holding things together. This becomes a key thematic concern within the film, throwing into stark relief the responsibilities placed onto a young person like Chanda. Stylistically, the use of colouring, framing and pace as used in this opening is carried through the film, highlighting the ways that characters both perceive the outside world and their own emotional states.
Chanda’s story is interwoven with a rich variety of characters who bring to the film the complexity of Chanda’s situation. Arguably, one of the key strengths of Life, Above All is the non-stereotypical character development. A good example of this is her step-father, Jonah, who has turned to alcohol, and might very easily be portrayed simply as 'the town drunk'. We can nonetheless clearly see his distress at Sarah’s death, his own confused views about Lillian being to blame for the death, the destructive impact of his own superstitions, and the likelihood that he has AIDS himself.
The relationship between Chanda and her best friend, Esther, is a poignant one, highlighting Chanda’s own independence of thought. We are witness to Esther’s own survival, as an orphan, but also to her vulnerability. Chanda tries to discourage her from prostitution when she sees her offering herself to truck drivers, and, after Esther is raped by a group of men in a car, telling her that they’ll infect her with AIDS, it is Chanda who brings her to stay in her mother’s house, much to the horror of Mrs Tafa and members of the community. Esther’s own predicament not only highlights the complex situation young people like her find themselves in, but also suggests the imperative that motivates young people like Chanda and Esther to take an independent stand against the received views and judgementalism of the community.
Mrs Tafa is herself another interesting example of characterisation within the film, and it is her own transformation which forms part of the climax of the film. Mrs Tafa is supportive, but is also interfering, fearful of people having the wrong impression, and, at times, manipulative. Chanda’s relationship with Mrs Tafa is an explosive one, and when Mrs Tafa convinces Lillian to leave Elandsdoorn, Chanda stands up to her angrily both in word and action, travelling to get her mother and bring her back home. In an earlier encounter, Mrs Tafa tells Chanda that her own son died in a robbery, and now Sarah has died of the flu; she mentions it, she says, so that 'there is no misunderstanding'. The weight of this statement becomes clear with hindsight, when, towards the ends of the film, inspired by Chanda’s own courage and moral stand, Mrs Tafa comes to Chanda’s support in standing up to the community, and admits to Chanda that her son had not died in a robbery, but, the implication is, from AIDS: 'He was so afraid people wouldn’t love him anymore. I dishonoured his death with a lie'.
Life, Above All is a moving, visually stimulating film in which the actors offer nuanced performances. Particular mention must be made of the two young first time actors from Elandsdoorn who play their roles passionately and thoughtfully: Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda and Keaobaka Makanyane as Esther. Life, Above All won six awards at the 5th South African Film and Television Awards, including Best Feature Film, the Prix Francois Challais at the Cannes Film Festival, and the special Jury prize at the Dubai International Film Festival.