'Life, Above All' Confronts the South African AIDS Pandemic with Care and Honesty

Oliver Schmitz's film casts an unblinking eye on the social stigma surrounding AIDS in his home country.

Life, Above All

Director: Oliver Schmitz
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Manamela
Distributor: Sony
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2011-12-06

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.





Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

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.