Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oliver Schmitz's LIFE, ABOVE ALL: a mix of South African reality and sentimentality

Strong, memorable, central performances ground the festival favorite from South Africa, LIFE, ABOVE ALL, which has already played Cannes' Un Certain Regard, 2010; Toronto, 2010; and this year's San Francisco, Roger Ebert and the Human Rights Watch film fests. Ostensibly taking place in present-day South Africa, the movie will remind many of us, in terms of the attitudes of the citizens on view, of the early 1980s in America's big cities, as AIDS, as yet unnamed, was harvesting lives and scaring the wits out of communities, gay and straight.

If homosexuality was for decades "the love that dare not speak its name," AIDS was (in many ways still is) the disease that had better shut up -- never more so, if Life, Above All has it right -- than in South Africa. Interestingly enough, homosexuality is nowhere to be seen in this movie, while AIDS is all over the place, taking its toll even as the citizens refuse to recognize it -- denying, lying and pretending, but ostracizing anyone suspected of suffering from the plague.

Written by Dennis Foon, from a novel by Allan Stratton, and directed with a combination of skill and schmaltz by Oliver Schmitz (shown at right, who has directed mostly for television -- and one of the fine episodes from Paris je  t'aime), the movie is never less than involving as it tells the story of the young girl Chandra, played by first-time actress, Khomotso Manyaka, shown above, who gives a commanding performance. At the film's beginning, Chandra's younger sister is dying, and her mom, we soon discover, is also sick. The townspeople are suspicious about the causes.

The most venerated woman in the village (Harriet Lenabe, above), also clearly the wealthiest (she's got a phone!), is a friend to Chandra and advises the girl as to what to say and how to phrase the reasons for the death and sickness. Chandra would be happy to simply tell the truth, but this is not allowed, and the movie soon becomes a push-and-pull tale of Chandra on one side and her relatives, the villagers and ever her own mother -- shamed into silence and secrecy -- on the other.

Whether by design of the filmmakers or the reality of the situation in Black South Africa today, the movie is very pro-woman. Whether they be right or wrong, it's the women who are strong, while the men -- with the exception of the village schoolteacher, above -- are low-life expendables or seem pussy-whipped hubbies unable to think for themselves.

And yet, because almost all of the women shown here, with the exception of Chandra and her friend Esther (a sad, angry and very impressive first performance by Keaobaka Makanyane, below, left) are on the wrong side, including the woman witch doctor sent to "explain" the situation (above, right), one might have some trouble calling the movie "feminist."

As Life, Above All, moves toward the point of showdown, coincidences pile up and, I'm afraid, the movie takes the easier path to a feel-good, lessons-leaned-thank-you, finale. Oh, it's moving enough, all right, but it isn't particularly believable, given all we've seen prior to it. Worth viewing for the performances, the beauty of the faces and the landscapes, the film leaves us with the sense that we've just witnessed a big-screen, art-house, foreign-language version of an after-school special.

Life Above All, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Friday, July 15, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Film Forum, and at the Royal in West Los Angeles. Further playdates all around the country can be found by clicking here.


On a related note, if you have not yet seen the excellent and quite provocative documentary, House of Numbers by Brent Leung  (my earlier review is here), which deals with AIDS in South Africa and how the incidence of poverty impacts on its diagnosis, you might want to give this worthwhile film a look.

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