There is still a severe level of ignorance regarding AIDS in South Africa. In a small town near Johannesburg, a young teenage girl deals with the pain of her family and friends contracting the disease. But in “Life, Above All,” the real disease is the ridiculous gossip and horribly melodramatic tragedy that follows this family around.
“Life, Above All” vividly captures poverty in this town considered middle class in South Africa. It is a bright, breathtaking looking film that begins as a wholesome tearjerker but slowly piles on hardship until we are drowning in it.
The beginning should’ve been a tip-off. Although Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is only a girl of about 12, it is her responsibility to pick the casket for her baby sister. Her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is ill with grief (and later more than that) and her father Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is ill with drink, so Chanda has been forced to grow up quickly.
And if this is a town in which maturity must come fast, then the rest of the town, including Chanda’s mother, are grown up way beyond their age. Just about everyone in the town, most notably Lillian’s best friend Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe), has a tendency for gossip, bitterly spreading rumors and keeping secrets without trust for anyone.
One person particularly harmed by the gossip is Chanda’s best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). After being accused of prostituting herself to truckers, Esther literally makes the rumors true, reasoning that if she will carry around the burden of guilt and a bad reputation, she may as well earn some money doing so.
This tendency for putting gossip above principals and morals strikes me as false and less of a cultural problem than one constraining a melodramatic screenplay. This level of gossip renders the adults to act irrationally, even going as far as to abandon loved ones and embrace mysticism.
In fact, the only person with any sense in the film is Chanda. Manyaka gives a lovely and strong performance throughout the film, but forcing a child to carry the burden of this torpid material blunts the edges and makes it all a bit more painful.
By the film’s end, it achieves at least one honorable realization of fault before concluding with a farfetched miracle. It’s exactly the sort of thing that ruins an occasionally heartfelt story between a mother and daughter.