Film

What a Wonderful 'Life': An Interview with Director Oliver Schmitz

Nik Ruckert

Life, Above All director Oliver Schmitz brings the best-selling novel Chanda's Secret to the big screen with a dazzling cast of African actresses. Schmitz chats with Nik Ruckert about the making of this universal South African tone poem about tolerance.


Life, Above All

Director: Oliver Schmitz
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Lenabe, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana, Audrey Poolo, Mapaseka Mathebe, Thato Kgaladi, Kgomotso Ditshweni, Rami Chuene
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
US Release Date: 2011-07-15

South African-born, Berlin-based director Oliver Schmitz has trouble hearing. He wears a delicate hearing aid in his left ear and occasionally asks to have things repeated. This is germane when you ask him what it was like making his latest film, Life, Above All in Sepedi, a language he does not speak. It wasn’t a hindrance at all, he says. He had dual English and Sepedi scripts, he studied the texts daily, he had something of a coach and translator in Harriet Manamela, the beautiful actress who plays the next door neighbor, and he guided things by emotion. “Listening to languages is not my strong suit anyway.”

Mr. Schmitz, whose previous films include Mapantsula and Paris Je T’aime, though soft-spoken, is clearly passionate about his latest effort, which deals with the story of a twelve year old South African girl, Chanda (beautifully played by newcomer Khomotso Manyaka), and the small village she lives in near Johannesburg. Residents of the township are turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic in fear of the stigma attached to the disease. The film opens with Chanda’s young sister dying of AIDS. It is clear that Chanda’s mother, Lillian (an impressive Lerato Mvelase), is also sick, and as Chanda tries to pick out a small, affordable casket, every attempt is made to hide the illness from the community.

“I read the book [Chanda’s Secrets] by Allan Stratton and two things grabbed me,” Schmitz said. “One was the perspective of the story through the eyes of the child and everything she has to go through to keep her family together.” After some reluctant and unsuccessful attempts at treatment, Chanda’s dying mother is taken to live with her own mother, in an attempt at exorcising her demons, and Chanda is left to care for her younger siblings, with the help of their neighbor, Mrs. Tafa (an expert turn by Hotel Rwanda’s Harriet Manamela). Chanda is finally fed up with the community’s self deception and goes on a journey to bring her mother home.

The other thing that grabbed Schmitz about the story was “this incredibly emotional roller coaster ride of a mother and daughter. She loses her mother and tries to get her back and fights the community; defends her mother under the most impossible circumstances.” Long before filming, Schmitz traveled to South Africa to gather information and met orphans of people with AIDS. He often cites a statistic: “800,000 orphans in South Africa whose parents have died of AIDS related illnesses.” He decided he had to tell this story. But far from what he calls a “statistics film", this is a deeply personal story, where AIDS is the cause, but the focus is on the effect: how these characters deal with their reality. One of the most extraordinary members of this exceptional, moving cast is first-timer Keaobaka Makanyane, the young girl who plays Esther, Chanda’s best friend, and whose bio states she was “cast on the spot".

The whole story is a little more charming: “She was always very clear about wanting to be an actress; very determined,” Schmitz says of Makanyane. “She waited everyday outside the production office to make sure I saw her. Tenaciously.” Both young actresses were new to acting, but Schmitz had seen other actresses and deemed them “too sophisticated” and decided to take “a big leap of faith.” The risk paid off, as they deliver uncalculated, astonishing performances.

When asked about the title, Life, Above All, Mr. Schmitz will tell you that “in a kind of roundabout way, it’s what’s at the center of this very issue: life and fighting for life.” He changed the title from that of Allan Stratton’s novel Chanda’s Secrets while they were preparing the film for the Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected Un Certain Regard. “I was never completely satisfied with the title Chanda’s Secrets because the secrets are those around her, the community; they’re not her secrets, so I find the title kind of misleading for the story.”

Much more than a film about AIDS, it is a film about people living with -- and dying of -- AIDS, all the while trying to deny it to the grave. What shines through is the passion of this good, small film. The hard work, dust and sweat flash out of the screen. It is gripping and moving; as ugly as it is beautiful. It unfolds itself gracefully and beautifully. Sometimes sweeping and cinematic, at other times it feels very small and confined. The cinematography by Bernhard Jasper is haunting, switching from rich panoramas of a hot, poverty stricken scene, to intimate tight shots.

It’s about life, suffering, love, health, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. As Mr. Schmitz put it, it’s a film centered around AIDS, but “it’s part of a bigger experience.”

* * *

Sony Pictures Classics will release Life, Above All on July 15.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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