Set in Elandsdoorn, a rural township in the province of Mpumalanga, South Africa, director Oliver Schmitz has painted an indelible portrait of a twelve-year-old girl’s resilience in the face of poverty, ignorance, and disease. The film, Life, Above All, was South Africa’s entry in the Oscar’s Best Foreign Film Category and appropriately received a ten-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based on the 2004 novel “Chandra’s Secrets” by Canadian author Allan Stratton with a screenplay by Dennis Foon, Life, Above All is not an easy film to watch but its rewards more than compensate. Schmitz walks a thin line between despair and uplift but never succumbs to easy answers, carving out a moving experience that neither condescends nor preaches.
Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka), in a luminous performance by Manyaka, is only 12-years-old but must deal with problems most adults would have difficulty in handling. A brave and resourceful girl who is no longer a child but not yet a woman, Chandra is a bright student but is compelled to quit school after her new-born sister dies and her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) falls ill with a disease that is unnamed until more than half the film is over. With purple lesions on her body, however, it is not hard to guess what the disease is, given the fact that there are over one million AIDS orphans in South Africa. Chandra not only has to care for her mother, but also has to look after her younger half-brother and sister Iris (Mapaseka Mathebe) and Soly (Thato Kgaladi) who desperately need guidance.
Her step-father, more often drunk than not, is no help. Neither is her wealthy neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), a judgmental individual who thinks that Chandra’s mother’s illness is a result of dark forces that have invaded the community. The only friend Chandra has is another young orphan Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). In a touching scene, the two promise to be best friends for life but their friendship is strained when Esther turns to prostitution to support herself, and is shunned by friends and neighbors. Chandra, however, stands up to the intolerant community and allows Esther to stay in her home after she is beaten by thugs.
When Lillian’s illness takes a turn for the worse, Mrs. Tafa takes her to a doctor who claims he can help victims of AIDS, but, through Chandra’s alert questioning, is revealed to be a salesman of herbal remedies without medical credentials. As Chandra’s mother becomes weaker, she is forced to leave home, bringing Chandra face to face with her biggest challenge. Life, Above All is not without its awkward moments, but, in its depiction of one young girl’s realization of what is possible and who acts to make that possibility real, it is a celebration of determination and courage.