Life, Above All is 100 minutes of grief and courage.
We share an arduous trek with 12-year old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) in rural South Africa, as she tries to fathom fatal illness around her. She has multiple, heavy burdens on her thin shoulders.
Her infant sister dies, her stepfather is a drunk, her best friend is shunned by the community, and her mother is ill.
The fear and ignorance in the rural township about the almost always unnamed curse -- AIDS -- is omnipresent. Chanda has to face anguish with determination and grace.
Based on a book by Allan Stratton -- with screenplay by Dennis Foon -- Life, Above All shows how South Africans failed to accept and deal with the reality of AIDS. It's a provocative and depressing plot.
It's one of those films where you fear the worst. Ironically, when it doesn't come, you wonder about its absence.
When people with stones suddenly turn into people praying, it's too simple, given what has come before. We expect a stone; we get a colorful pebble. It's easier to duck a pebble.
Life, Above All also is another film in which the leading actress transcends the script. Khomotso Manyaka is wonderful as the brave, thoughtful Chanda.
The actresses around Manyaka -- Lerato Mvelase as the mother, Keaobaka Makanyane as the troubled best friend, and Harriet Manamela as "protector" -- all are worthy.
Director Oliver Schmitz knows his subject well, and obviously appreciates the talented young actress he has. Cinematographer Bernhard Jasper lights her expressive face very effectively.
Life, Above All is a beam of light in a dark place.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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