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Movie Review: Life, Above All (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13

Appropriate for ages 13 and up. The dialogue, in a dialect of the Northern Sotho language of South Africa, is subtitled, and if there is any very harsh profanity, it has been lost in translation. There is drinking and some extreme public intoxication. Explicit references are made to prostitution involving young teen girls, though no sexual activity is shown. The ravages of disease are apparent on the bodies of some characters. We see a beaten, bloodied face or two, as well as a corpse.

Choosing Life

One girl refuses to let those she loves be swept under the rug

by Jared Peterson

Life, Above All unfolds in a small South African township, where a young girl, Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), lives with—and, in some ways, heads—her shifting family. The film opens solemnly, among preparations for the funeral of Chanda’s infant half-sister, who has just died of influenza. Chanda’s mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is depressed and stunned to silence by the loss. Chanda takes a break from school to guide the family through it.

But the process of putting the tragedy behind them is complicated by family secrets and by the currents of fear and suspicion that flow underneath the outwardly compassionate reactions of the neighborhood. In this community, navigating death is, sadly, about more than support. Illness is still regarded by some as divine retribution, punishment for—and, sometimes, evidence of—some perceived transgression. The supposed sins of the mother, it is believed, may be visited upon the children. Thus, Lillian and her family are forced to carry a double burden, as death brings both personal suffering and social shame. When Lillian begins to get sick, public sentiment shifts further, and compassion turns to blame and threatens to erupt in violence. Their better-off neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) acts as a friend and protector of the family. She tries to keep the social disaster in check, but her good intentions are muddied by her desire to save face, for them and herself, making her as much a collaborator as a savior.

Chanda, through all of this, shows herself to be a born fighter. Resistant to fear and immune to superstition, she holds fast to good sense and to the bonds of love and loyalty that are essential to keeping a family together. She brazenly ignores the whispers and shouts, the dirty looks and tossed stones of the neighborhood. Her resilience is remarkable, and it raises the question of where such enlightenment comes from, and how it rises above the fray. What empowers someone to stand up to ignorance? In Chanda, intelligence, stubbornness and love all play their part.

It becomes clear as the story progresses that day-to-day existence in this community is held together with lies. Some are cynical and self-serving, as when a man from the local clinic plays on the illiteracy of his patients to pass off corporate shilling for medical expertise, or when a witch doctor uses cheap sleight-of-hand to stoke people’s fears of supernatural revenge. Others, if not benign, are intended to protect the innocent from the harsh realities of life and death. Chanda’s younger siblings are told a number of stories to explain the absence of their newborn sister—the tales are flimsy and even contradictory, but they accept them and behave accordingly.

Still other untruths stem from the complicated mixture of traditional beliefs with modern life, as knowledge of the mechanisms and transmission of disease clashes messily with longstanding social strictures. There’s a potent risk that audiences might condemn this native African community as somehow backward and resistant to “Western” enlightenment. But in many ways, this place is no different than small towns anywhere—complex and tightly knit, caring and nosy. And it’s not a stretch to say that lies, half-truths and evasions constitute part of the delicate economies of most communities, where they operate on a sliding scale balanced between good and harm. What distinguishes life in Life, Above All is the deadly seriousness of its everyday circumstances.

Director Oliver Schmitz and his team do some beautiful things with the camera. The filmmakers create a rich and vivid sense of place on both a broad and an intimate scale—from the vast, open stretches of grassland between townships to Mrs. Tafa’s tiny parlor, crowded with knickknacks and mementos of her dead son. They also use editing and pacing to reveal truths gradually and naturally rather than forcing them. Though there are sure to be differences between the lives of the audience and life in the townships, the film has a familiarity to it—a reminder, perhaps, of the universal struggles of family life everywhere.

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