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Life, Above All: Film Review

The Bottom Line

German-born director Oliver Schmitz takes on the subject of AIDS in South Africa without kowtowing to western images of Africa in this somewhat simplistic drama.

Venue

Festival de Cannes (Un Certain Regard)

Director

Oliver Schmitz

Cast

Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela

Oliver Schmitz's "Life, Above All" sets out as a character-driven film about one of the nearly one million children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa but its schematic structure oversimplifies the drama, despite an interesting, mostly debut cast.

Oliver Schmitz's Life, Above All sets out as a character-driven film about one of the nearly one million children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa but its schematic structure oversimplifies the drama, despite an interesting, mostly debut cast. It seems better suited for the small screen, which could work to give the film broader television sales.

Life starts with a quietly emotional blow: 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka in a promising acting debut) has to pick out a coffin for her infant sister. Chandra lives with her mother (Lerato Mvelase) and younger half-siblings, the children of an alcoholic second husband who has abandoned them. The indomitable girl drops out of school since her mother is first too depressed then too sick to care for the family.

Chandra is certain that the lesions on her mother's body are symptoms of AIDS, and begs her to go to the hospital. Her mother refuses and instead the family's neighbor and only friend, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela, who appeared in Hotel Rwanda), calls a witch doctor, who rids the house of demons. The truth is not addressed because AIDS is a taboo, and leads to total isolation from the rest of the terrified, mostly illiterate community.

Chandra is also bullied by Mrs. Tafa to shun her supposedly coquettish best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), an orphan who turns to child prostitution in order to survive. The female characters are the pillars of strength in Life, Above All, based on Allan Stratton's best-selling novel Chandra's War. The younger generation in particular shows more courage and loyalty -- and education -- in fighting ignorance and social prejudice.

The German-born Schmitz grew up in South Africa and doesn't cater to Western images of Africa. He and cinematographer Bernhard Jasper use bright colors and natural light without making the surroundings picturesque. Nor is the squalor of the houses and streets played up to sentimental effect. But as it progresses, the script's often stilted dialogue hammers home the issues too many times, to the detriment of the underlying family drama.

Fear, of course, is the driving force behind any taboo, and fear of AIDS on a continent that has been decimated by it, where a cure is still nearly impossible, is understandable. Subsequently, the film's hopeful but formulaic ending -- lessons of forgiveness and acceptance are quickly learned -- undermines its very premise. If it were that easy to change people's minds about AIDS, it wouldn't be taboo anymore.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Un Certain Regard
Sales: Bavaria Film International
Production company: Dreamer Joint Venture
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela, Keaobaka Makanyane, Mapaseka Mathebe, Thato Kgaladi, Tinah Mnumzana, Aubrey Poolo
Director: Oliver Schmitz
Screenwriter: Dennis Foon
Producer: Oliver Stoltz
Director of photography: Bernhard Jasper
Production designer: Christiane Roth
Music: Ali N. Askin
Costume designer: Nadia Kruger
Editor: Dirk Grau
No rating, 104 minutes