“Life, above All” has the feel of a cinematic fable. It’s the kind of win-for-losing drama that Hemingway might have written if Santiago were a schoolgirl in a South African community beset by AIDS, rather than a stubborn Cuban fisherman fighting a marlin that seemed bigger than life itself. Both of the heroes emerge as scions of a heroic era long past, and survivors with a capital “S” who maintain their dignity somehow, even as righteous indignation swells within them.
Based on the novel Chandra’s Secret, by Allan Stratton, “Life, above All” risks pedantry by engaging in advocacy filmmaking, and saccharine soap-opera melodrama by embracing the full range of human emotions while exploring themes of trust, loyalty, morality, prejudice, and forgiveness.
But I have to say up-front that this film wouldn’t be nearly as successful were it not for the compelling contribution by newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as Chandra, a teenage girl who tries to hold her family together against all odds. Manyaka offers such an honest portrayal, with no missteps, that you have to applaud both her talent and Oliver Schmitz’s direction. It’s hard to believe, really, that this is the first time she’s been in front of the camera for a feature film. In fact, Schmitz used mostly locals and new faces for this film, which is to be admired. Even the minor characters are believable, with absolutely no self-consciousness in front of the camera. Whatever Schmitz told them, it worked.
Given the slight second-act sag that the screenplay suffers and the reductive obviousness of the theme that hits you by the third act, you’d have to say that the young and inexperienced talents carry the film. Then again, I have to admit that this film moved me, and it’s the story, not just the performances, that were responsible for that. So too with the music, sung by locals.
“Life, above All” was one of 20 un certain regard films shown at the Cannes Film Festival, while in Canada it won a Leo award for Best Screenwriting in a Feature Length Drama. It’s shot in the Northern Sotho language, with subtitles in English or French.
Those who keep track of such things found that the film resonates more with women than it does with men. I’m not surprised. The point of view is female, and central to the narrative are stories of female relationships: Chandra and her sick mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase); Chandra and her promiscuous best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane); and Lillian and her old friend Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela). With only a few exceptions, the men are drunks, ne’er do wells, or just plain faces in a crowd. “Life, above All” is Chandra’s story, with her mother’s acting as a textural echo, and the theme is the same for both: how can one remain faithful to a friend when the community is against them, and that jeopardizes your standing?
“Life, above All” is also about the AIDS pandemic–how it effects a South African community not just by attrition, but by the twisted effect that the “bug” has on the way that people see and relate to each other. There’s a quiet beauty about “Life, above All” that mirrors the beauty we see in Chandra, and obviously smart and perceptive girl who’s had to miss a lot of school to help her mother care for a sick sister, deal with her alcoholic stepfather, contend with best friend issues, and finally care for Lillian herself. She gets what’s happening around her and sees through a fake doctor. We suspect that if she were born under any other circumstances she’d probably be an honor student headed for a promising career in medicine. Here, she has much fewer options.
Schmitz focuses perhaps a little too narrow on the AIDS and relationships issues to give us a well-rounded portrait of life in modern rural South Africa, but the cinematography by Bernhard Jasper is wonderful. No doubt at Schmitz’s direction, he uses a lot of shots that suggest a split frame, and relies on iconic shots to suggest the various themes that emerge. In the opening segments, for example, there are a lot of doorway shots and shots of people looking out windows, suggestive of the threshold that Chandra must cross. Beautifully filmed, it’s a different kind of coming-of-age story where a young girl’s maturation process is accelerated by the circumstances of her life.
Marketed as a Sony Pictures Classic, “Life, above All” looks great on HD. There are no problems with atmospheric lighting and the level of detail is what we’ve come to expect of Blu-ray: sharp edge delineation, skin pores and hairs shown in clarity, even beads of sweat looking precise. There’s also a nice sense of 3-dimensionality in the film, and when you see artfully composed shots there’s nothing in the video quality to detract from it. I saw no flaws as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. Simply put, “Life, above All” is a beautiful film that’s beautiful to watch.
The audio is also superb. Though “Life, above All” is a quiet film, there’s great clarity that’s evident in those quiet moments, with the slightest ambient sounds amplified nicely and distributed logically across the sound field. Bass is strong but not rumbling, and the whole soundtrack has a nice timbre to it. I couldn’t call it an immersive track, because of what that word has come to mean to audiophiles (and it hardly ever applies to a quiet film), but you do feel naturally enveloped by the sound. The soundtrack is a Northern Sotho DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.
While there’s not much here, there’s just enough to satisfy a viewer’s curiosity. A 14-minute making-of feature is pretty standard, but it offers some fascinating background on the casting, location work, and filming in Northern Sotho.
It’s sad, yes–how else to describe a film that begins with the funeral of a girl whose coffin is small enough to be carried by a single man?–but there’s also hope and a sense of triumph in “Life, above All.” Call it art with heart.