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