PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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