Tragedies rarely do the courtesy of knocking, nor do they tend to offer any reasons for their visit. It’s natural to seek out explanations for suffering, but who or what is to blame, or why we deserve it, are questions that hardly ever apply.
Life, Above All, the caring but unremitting look at the AIDS pandemic by South African director Oliver Schmitz, begins with a dire but personal family tragedy. Twelve-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) leaves the house as her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), mourns the death of her baby daughter. But if the reserved reactions from those in town are not indicative enough, the appearance of the very drunk husband/father, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo), confirms that there’s more at stake here than family loss.
“You poisoned her with your milk,” Jonah accuses Lillian. Later, with symptoms of the disease all over his body, he will still declare, “My blood is good, my seed too,” and places total blame for the tragedy on Lillian’s shoulders.
The initial cause of death is stated as influenza, but that’s only the first of many willful elusions from the truth. The word AIDS does not come easily to the tongue in Life, Above All. The few times it does, it’s hushed away by those who hear it. What we do get is a lot of talk about spells, curses, sin, and culpability. As Lillian’s illness becomes more pronounced, the available solutions move between quick fixes proposed by quack doctors, magical cleaning rituals, and fatalistic hands thrown in the air. In the last case, a cure is of little interest; Lillian is merely reaping what she sowed.
Amidst all this chaos, Chanda, wise beyond her years – and, it would seem, beyond those of her neighbors, as well – faces continuous tests of loyalty to her increasingly stigmatized loved ones. Her best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), was left an orphan by the same unnamable evil that now plagues Lillian. Shunned from society and accused of sexual promiscuity, Esther is decreed off bounds to Chanda. Later, Chanda also battles to maintain contact with Lillian, who returns to her hometown at the insistence of a soothsayer and leaves Chanda and her siblings under the care of neighbor and close friend Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela).
Rumors fly after Lillian leaves, but the obvious is never made explicit. “They think your mother was bewitched,” Mrs. Tafa exclaims on behalf of the town when Chanda tries to broach the unspeakable. Lillian will come home once she’s healthy and, in the meantime, Chanda should socialize more. “You wouldn’t want people to think something was wrong,” Mrs. Tafa warns.
Schmitz expertly conveys the social stigma that surrounds AIDS victims with telling details. Esther is relegated to a small wooden shack with barely a mat to sleep on. Townspeople walk past Chanda’s house, leering, gossiping, and whispering about the horrors occurring within. No one who has had contact with the disease is considered innocent. More than shame imprints itself on the victims and their relatives; equally, some sort of guilt and immediate danger to the community is assumed. Stones are cast, pariah status bestowed.
The strength of the film throughout comes from Schmitz and his cinematographer Bernhard Jasper. The story, adapted by Dennis Foon from Allan Stratton’s novel, increasingly veers toward soul-cleansing sentimentality as it proceeds, but the visuals never cease to confront the depths of the misery that AIDS brings to Chanda’s community. In a movie about the layers of illusions, dishonesty, and secrecy that surround AIDS in South Africa, Schmitz presents the illness with disarmingly blunt force. His camera keeps coming back to the faces of his characters, chronicling both their despair and determination.
When the illness hits full force, the camera remains trained on those faces, neither hiding from the brutality of the disease nor brandishing it as a form of moral shock therapy for the audience. Rather, the faces become a testament to the movie’s consistent message: no matter what we would like, we cannot maintain the illusion of control while tragedy weaves its chaotic course through our lives. All we can hope for is family and community support to get through the turmoil.
The DVD/Blu-ray combo set comes with limited extras: a trailer and making of documentary. The latter, though, shines a nice spotlight on the child actors, all amateur locals, and the on location shooting that goes a long way to giving the film its powerful sense of place and realism.