Life, Above All (***1/2)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

Thirty years after the AIDS epidemic first rattled the world, it still rages in sub-Sahara Africa. Few films have captured the plague’s fury on the motherland, until now. This enligtening, sensitive and inspiring screen adaptation of Allan Stratton’s novel “Chanda’s Secrets” puts a human face on a cure-defying disease.

Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl, lives in Elandsdoom, a township in South Africa. She has her hands full. Mom, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is severely ill and disappears mysteriously. Her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is a useless drunk. Her stepsiblings are unruly and try her patience, yet Chanda mothers them the best she can.

Neighbors gossip endlessly, implying Chanda’s mom has AIDS. They ostracize the family, as if they could pick up the disease from a sneeze. The little girl takes on adult woes, and looks to other outcasts for moral support. She associates with a known teen prostitute Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), which further stigmatizes her. A village matron, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), secrets Lillian out of town and seeks to squash the vile rumors. But as Chanda discovers more details about her mother’s dilemma, she becomes determined to confront the villagers’ wrath and bring her family together.

The novel and the film make a vulnerable child the central protagonist. Chanda fights gossip, adults’ derision and prejudice. She deals with abandonment issues, alcoholism, prostitution and disease. She withstands the ignorance and intolerance surrounding the disease with a naïveté and fierceness that is enviable and ultimately galvanizing. Credit novelist Allan Stratton for the intimate, courageous storyline. Dennis Foon, screenwriter, retains the essence of the book and the spirit of its diminutive heroine. German director and former South African resident Oliver Schmitz helps the cast find the souls of their characters, keeps the narrative on course and measures out the dramatic peaks perfectly. So much monstrous emotional abuse is heaved at the vulnerable child that audiences can’t help but feel her plight and hope that she will do what adults can’t – let her heart, compassion and love guide her.

The actors deserve take on difficult roles, those of characters stymied by ignorance and fear. Their actions, which seem oh so real, will make you grimace. Manamela, as the terse domineering woman who manipulates Chanda shows amazing emotional depth in dramatic scenes when she and Manyaka have power struggles. Their relationship is as weathered and nerve-racking as that of any overbearing surrogate mother and child. Mvelase’s performance is the clear hit of this film.

As the drama crests and subsides, the musical score and deft cinematography (Bernhard Jasper) accentuate the right moments and cast a discerning eye.

The film plays out like a modern allegory with strong life lessons. This an emotionally satisfying and cleansing first-hand experience about that scourge called AIDS.