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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.