A South African Film Explores Courage and Survival Amid the AIDS Pandemic
by Chip Alfred
It’s called Life, Above All, but the opening scene takes place at the funeral of a baby who died of AIDS. The heartrending image of a tiny white coffin being lowered into the ground sets the tone for the film, but this isn’t a movie about death. “It’s a story about an amazing young girl who battles the prejudice of her community and fights for her mother’s love and honor,” director Oliver Schmitz contends.
Life, Above All is based on the award-winning novel by Allan Stratton, Chanda’s Secrets, first published in North America in 2004. In the book, Chanda discovers the prevalence of death around her and the fact that no one will admit that AIDS is the cause.
Not until an hour into the film is the word “AIDS” even mentioned. When someone is HIV-positive and becomes sick, people make up excuses for the symptoms. When someone dies from AIDS, there’s a lie about the cause of death. The underlying message in Life is that the truth can hurt, but deception can cause even more damage to a community. “Nothing is more contagious than lies” are the last words seen in the movie’s trailer.
“I wrote Chanda’s Secrets to give this pandemic a face,” Stratton discloses. “I wanted the reader to be able to discover human drama.” Producer Oliver Stoltz says what inspired him in Stratton’s book were the values it represents, especially Chanda’s “commitment to helping outsiders and to fighting for her family and for justice.”
In the film, Chanda learns of a rumor spreading through her village near Johannesburg—that her family is being torn apart by AIDS. Chanda’s mother, spurned by neighbors when they discover she is ill, leaves her family—believing their house is “bewitched.” Chanda eventually leaves home and school in search of her mother and the truth.
Schmitz, who was raised in South Africa, says the motion picture describes attitudes toward HIV/AIDS when Thabo Mbeki was president from 1999–2008. Mbeki questioned the scientific link between HIV and AIDS. His health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told people with HIV to eat garlic and beetroot as a treatment method.
Mbeki was widely criticized for not making antiretroviral drugs available to the public. Mbeki’s resistance to ARVs may have caused more than 300,000 unnecessary deaths in his country, according to a Harvard University study published in 2008. “It’s no wonder there was a climate of fear and distrust,” Schmitz exclaims.
The 2010 UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic estimates there are 5.6 million South Africans living with HIV and AIDS—more than any other country. The report also shows an encouraging trend. The rate of new infections is declining, as it is in a number of African nations.
Unfortunately, it’s the children of South Africa who suffer the most. There are an estimated 800,000 AIDS-related orphans in South Africa left to fend for themselves. Consequently, girls like Chanda, the central character in the film, never get to experience a normal childhood. They’re forced to grow up too fast and take on adult responsibilities.
Before filming began, Schmitz met some of these local children who are victims of the system. He spoke with a fourteen-year-old girl who had lost her parents. From the age of ten, she was taking care of two younger siblings and living in the house where they were raised, without any government assistance. They relied on a neighbor who occasionally brought some food. Once a month, a family member would bring a bag of beans and a few dollars.
“These kids have slipped through the cracks. The extended families do not take them in,” Schmitz explains. “Social Services does nothing because there is no adult to sign for them. It’s a tragic situation.”
Schmitz and his team insisted on shooting Life in a local language called Sepedi to establish authenticity. They also decided to shoot in original locations to give the film realism and depth. Elansdoorn, a township just outside of Johannesburg, was chosen for the backdrop and much of the casting was done there.
Khomotso Manyaka, who plays the part of Chanda, was discovered by talent scouts during a choir performance at her Elansdoorn high school. A mesmerizing presence in the film, Manyaka had no previous experience on camera when she was cast in the leading role.
Chanda is a rebellious girl who defies the norms of her society to protect her family and her best friend Esther. When she learns Esther is HIV-positive, Chanda stands by Esther while the townspeople ostracize her. Chanda takes her friend to the hospital and wades through the long lines of patients needing care. She fights to help Esther find a good doctor and receive the treatment she needs.
When Esther loses hope and believes her death is inevitable, Chanda consoles her and assures her there is a chance she will get her medication and a chance she will survive.
Although this is a story about people dealing with HIV/AIDS, Stoltz asserts AIDS isn’t the main focus. He says the stigma is the central theme—the fear of becoming an outsider if people find out. It’s about the prejudice and isolation people with HIV are forced to endure.
First released in 2010, Life, Above All has been shown at international film festivals including Cannes, San Francisco, and Toronto. Scheduled for release in the U.S. in mid-July, the movie is having a powerful impact on viewers and critics alike. “The story has a universality that strikes a chord,” says Schmitz.
Cath Clarke, a U.K. film critic for The Guardian, calls Life “an unflinching study of the AIDS stigma and how it affects one girl’s life in South Africa. There is huge warmth and humanism alongside the bleakness.”
Harriet Manamela, a veteran South African actress. plays a supporting role in Life. She recalls the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in her country—when the government told people not to worry. “It was labeled a gay sickness, one that came from the white community. They said it wouldn’t affect us.”
Now the crushing reality is that it’s affecting everyone. “We’ve been saying HIV/AIDS is killing our nation. Even a child can deal with this huge problem,” says Manamela. “As adults we’re too concerned about what we don’t want people to know.”
So what needs to change to prevent HIV infection? “Our mindset,” Manamela responds. “We still believe ‘it won’t happen to me.’ It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s all of our problem. We should stop being so secretive.”
Schmitz acknowledges his film is a sad one, but he believes U.S. audiences will find inspiration in Chanda’s selfless determination. “In the end, Life, Above All is very much a hopeful tale about the power of friendship, solidarity and loyalty.”
For more information about Life, Above All, visit www.lifeaboveallmovie.com.
Chip Alfred is Editor-at-Large for A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.