Today: June 11, 2024

Life Above All

It’s been almost 20 years since Tom Hanks picked up an Academy Award in Hollywood’s first and so far only big-ticket film about AIDS.

It’s been almost 20 years since Tom Hanks picked up an
Academy Award in Hollywood’s first and so far only big-ticket film about AIDS.
In the time that’s passed, the epidemic that still
causes more than 17,000 deaths every year in the USA has dropped off
Tinseltown’s radar so dramatically that Philadelphia,
the Jonathan Demme movie that
starred Hanks, seems like an anomalous period piece.

By contrast it is perhaps surprising that it has taken quite so long for
such an eloquent and angry film to be made about the almost unimaginably huge
problem in South Africa, where around 6 million people live with HIV.

What isn’t a surprise is that Life, Above All should be directed by
South African film legend Oliver Schmitz,
who made his name with Mapantsula,
which is right up there with The Harder
They Come
in the pantheon of ghetto gangster flicks.

Carried totally by a remarkable debut performance by Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda, a smart
12-year-old girl who represents both the fury and the hope that this film
represents, Life, Above All artfully treads the fine line between bleak and
uplifting as it tackles the ignorance, apathy and superstition that have left
around 800,000 AIDS orphans in Africa’s richest country.

Opening with the death of Chanda’s infant sister, her bereaved mother
Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) swiftly
falls ill while her feckless stepfather (Aubrey
Poolo
) drinks away the pain before flitting off with a foul-mouthed woman
of easy virtue.

The community begins to gossip, especially when the stepfather returns,
shaky and emaciated. Risking everything, Chanda stands alone against the fear
that sweeps through her neighbourhood. Although this is set amongst South
Africa’s black quasi-middle-class, not the slum of a township, a lack of
education and medicine mean old beliefs hold sway. And like so many places
where curtains twitch, shame is the most unwanted family guest.

Driven by her knowledge of what’s right, Chanda has to rebel against
everything expected of her by the church and Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), her mother’s overbearing, superstitious friend
and her nominal protector, and finds solace and understanding with her
classmate Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane),
who’s already skipping school to turn tricks for truckers.

Running up against walls everywhere she turns and never giving in,
Chanda is, hopefully, a hint of the future for a benighted nation. The
astonishing performance by Manyaka is reason enough to see this film. It’s an
education.

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