Blu-ray Review: ‘Life, Above All’ Takes Child’s Eye View of AIDS Pandemic

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CHICAGO – According to multiple reports from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Oliver Schmitz’s artfully lensed, sensitively acted film received one of the warmest receptions. Set in a modern South African village, “Life, Above All” is one of several recent pictures aiming to illustrate that an HIV-positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. It’s a film of grand statements delivered with quiet power.

Like Ramin Bahrani, Schmitz is extraordinarily gifted at eliciting naturalistic performances from untrained actors. At the heart of “Life” is Khomotso Manyaka, a child actress devoid of any self-conscious mannerisms to indicate that she is, in fact, acting. Manyaka’s work is beautiful, but Schmitz’s direction is the key to her success. By allowing his young star to freely inhabit her character, he avoids the usual pitfalls that occur when an overly ambitious director is paired with a blank slate. Schmitz seems to know precisely where and how to frame her face, and a great deal can be read into the lingering close-ups of her eyes. Blu-ray Rating: 4.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 4.0/5.0

Manyaka stars as Chanda, a 12-year-old girl whose parents are slowly fading from her life. She’s forced to take on the adult responsibility of selecting a coffin for her newborn sister, whose limp body is cradled by her tear-stained mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase). Chanda’s ailing father occasionally materializes to claim that Lillian had poisoned the baby with her milk. It’s not long before Chanda starts to realize the nature of her family’s predicament. Religious superstition and primal fear cause the villagers to treat AIDS victims as if they were lepers, yet Chanda represents the face of the future. She resists the prejudices of past generations while seeking solace in the arms of her friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a girl whose dangerous lifestyle has earned her a different stigma from the community.

Khomotso Manyaka and Harriet Lenabe star in Oliver Schmitz’s drama Life Above All.
Khomotso Manyaka and Harriet Lenabe star in Oliver Schmitz’s drama Life Above All.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The most potent performance in the picture is delivered by Harriet Lenabe as the next-door neighbor who takes it upon herself to care for Lillian’s children, while harboring her own private shame. Lenabe’s character could’ve been portrayed as a one-note bully, but screenwriter Dennis Foon (who based the script off Allan Stratton’s book, “Chanda’s Secrets”) clearly set out to make a film populated not by heroes and villains but flawed people wrestling with universally relatable paranoia and volatile emotions. The real enemy isn’t a person but a belief that the sick should be punished for their illness and cast out to die. There’s a devastating moment when a character watches the faces of her family through a car window for what she knows will be the last time before being shipped off to oblivion.

Life Above All was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
Life Above All was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Unfortunately, the least convincing scene in the film takes place at the very end, as a ray of hope abruptly emerges in the midst of certain doom. Though the overall sentiment of “Life’”s final minutes is deeply moving, it doesn’t feel earned by the previous scenes. The same curious flaw occurs in Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s otherwise magnificent short film, “Papy,” which ended an unrelentingly bleak narrative on a jarringly optimistic note. Whereas “Papy” followed the plight of an infected Congolese man’s deteriorating life, Schmitz’s film provides a child’s eye view of the pandemic’s impact on a family. The ending may be somewhat idealized, but its message is real, urgent and utterly vital.
“Life, Above All” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio) that brings flawless clarity to Bernhard Jasper’s cinematography (several shots have the textured beauty of an oil painting). It’s always nice to see a foreign festival favorite receive the combo pack treatment, and this set offers both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film. Unfortunately, the lone extra is a 14-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that barely digs beneath the surface of the production. Stratton says he was attracted to the material after witnessing the similar mistreatment of AIDS victims in the west, and set out to put “a human face on the pandemic.”
The crew shot on location in Elandsdoorn, South Africa, where the Ndlovu Medical Center resides. Ndlovu is the clinic founded by Dr. Hugo Templeton, who has had success treating the AIDS virus and ended up serving as an advisor on the film. Manyaka had never seen a camera before and was mentored by both Mvelase and Schmitz (one sequence shows the director literally guiding Manyaka through a take, telling her exactly where to look and move). The decision to fluidly shoot with handheld cameras proved to be enormously helpful, allowing the inexperienced actors to not feel self-conscious about their movement. The featurette also includes stats on the shocking number of households where the virus has removed both parents, thus forcing their children to fend for themselves. No wonder this film preaches the vitality of a unified community.

‘Life, Above All’ is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and stars Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Lenabe, Aubrey Poolo and Tinah Mnumzana. It was written by Dennis Foon and directed by Oliver Schmitz. It was released on Dec. 6, 2011. It is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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