It would be easy to watch Life, Above All and then walk away with a smug sense of distance from the tyranny of an all consuming disease slowly but surely eating away at a community. That the community is in South Africa might make it easier for many to distance themselves further, but a very universal tale is being told here - a tale that isn’t unique to Africa.
On the surface, the elephant in the town square in this film is AIDS. I’ve not read the book, Chanda’s Secrets, upon which Life Above All is based, but neither HIV nor AIDS is mentioned in the synopsis of the film and not even until very late in. However, mentioning AIDS here is no great spoiler as the secrecy surrounding the cause of death of the baby at the beginning of the film, and the lives and deaths of others as the film progresses, has more to do with not wanting to speak of the illness that dare not speak its name than with any dramatic plot device. What makes this film intriguingly familiar is not so much how AIDS ravages a community, but how a community sets up, condones and even colludes with face-saving lies and is even happy to court and accept superstition rather than confront the truth and risk shame and ostracism.
The short synopsis of the film reads:
Just after the death of her newly-born baby sister, Chanda, 12 years old, learns of a rumor that spreads like wildfire through her small, dust-ridden village near Johannesburg. It destroys her family and forces her mother to flee. Sensing that the gossip stems from prejudice and superstition, Chanda leaves home and school in search of her mother and the truth.
What carries the film isn’t the secret itself but how people deal with it. As long as the lie is well set up, people are willing to accept a story at face value and, as long as the creator of the lie is able to stand firmly by it without any outward sign of weakness, then others will accept the lie as truth. Any outward signs, however, of cracks in the accepted “truth” and suddenly fear – shown by the teller of the lie, as well as those who were prepared to stand behind it – rears its ugly head and sets about trying to reek its own revenge and set its own perceived sense of wrong to rights.
The sad thing is that the feared truth, in this instance AIDS, is, as long as one is willing to face it head on, accept it and deal with it appropriately, usually something that can be lived with and needn’t be the cause of long suffering and stigmatisation. In Life, Above All, this is born out in the actions of Chandra who, despite being told to toe the party line and accept the wisdoms and lies of her elders, gradually goes out of her way to seek the truth and ends up brining it to the attention of all. Her natural inclinations and later resolute efforts are initially met with friendly warnings, pity, scorn and, soon enough, threats of violence from everyone from Church members to town whore/drunk alike.
Though beautifully photographed, no visual or psychological gimmicks are used to keep you watching, although I did find myself waiting for the first open acknowledgement of AIDS as being the root cause of everyone’s jitteriness.
While the open secret in the film is pretty evident from the beginning, in terms of themes, I’ll go with trite Hollywood pitch parlance and say Life, Above All is akin to Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon meets Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.
As in The White Ribbon, it’s the children, specifically Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda, and a chilling and touching performance by Keaobaka Makanyane who plays Esther, Chanda’s best friend who’s gone through the scourge of condemnation, from AIDS orphan to child prostitute (although it’s her descent into prostitution in order to take care of herself and send money to her younger siblings that’s held up as her shameful and the cause for social stigma, rather than the treatment of her by others in the wake of her parent’s death that led her down that path) that make this film compelling viewing. However, as is often the case in films with children at their centre, director Oliver Schmitz, doesn’t resort to slow, seeping horror or trite, tiresome hokeyness. Of course, with Chandra’s demonstrable courage, there is the universal message of children as hope for the future and, as cliché as this may be, it’s is, after all, true and, with the death of one child at the beginning of the film and the courage of another at the end of it, this hope is neatly, though not obviously, highlighted in the bookending of the film with a dirge at one end being the same mournful yet rousing song at the end - the lyrics remaining the same, but their different deliveries altering the message.