“Life, Above All”; A Truffaut-esque Portrait of a Modernizing Africa

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
by Joey Nolfi (Me)

A tiny South African town is the backdrop for “Life, Above All,” a vibrant film about grim subjects.

Its opening chronicles the selection of a tiny casket for a tiny body, by a tiny body; its focal character is a child, 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), enduring the struggles a small African community faces in the midst of modernization. Commercial prosperity, new hospitals and even time to have backyard block parties are all indicative of a society on the rise. But the threat of death and disease is still very real, and Chanda must deal with them largely on her own terms. She is wise and persevering far beyond her years, choosing a small coffin to house her baby sister’s body, returning home to dirty dishes and unfinished homework.

Although HIV and death are still ever-present concerns for the citizens of Chanda’s small community, “Life, Above All” does not paint them as a downtrodden Third World embodiment of destitution; this is a South Africa on the mend. Their homes are well-kept and their social lives active. It’s paranoia, however, that holds these people back.

Chanda’s mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), comes down with “the bug,” as the townspeople call HIV. Not even behind closed doors is it acceptable for Chanda to speculate about her sickness, let alone suggest the appropriate treatment. Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) is a neighbor with ulterior motives. She feigns concern for Lillian and offers to help the family in small ways here and there, but she’s an active member of many gossip circles. Mrs. Tafa is testy, quick-tempered and acid-tongued, as are many of the adult characters in “Life, Above All.” Paranoia spreads faster than any disease can throughout the tiny community, and Chanda’s family becomes the easiest target.

It’s the strength of the town’s children in spite of their superiors’ pettiness that makes “Life, Above All” an engrossing picture of oppositions. Children act with enough emotional depth as an “adult” should; they are earnest, wise, self-sacrificing individuals in the face of the real adults, who are self-serving and stubborn.

Director Oliver Schmitz handles his juvenile characters much like a modern-day Truffaut, keeping his audience in close enough proximity to understand his subjects yet pulling back far enough to render them as an entirely alien force that we, as adults, can hardly empathize with.

The children in “Life, Above All” are independent and good-natured yet harbor complexity that extends far beyond the reaches of their elders. Children like Chanda are byproducts of a progressive modernizing society, but it is not until their forefathers eventually give up their retrogressive ways that even the tiniest glimpse of a better society can endure.

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