Life, Above All: A Plucky 12-Year-Old Heroine in South Africa

“AIDS” isn’t uttered until well past the halfway mark of Oliver Schmitz’s problematic South Africa–set tale about the fear, gossip, and superstition surrounding the illness in a township 125 miles outside Johannesburg. Bright, stoic 12-year-old Chanda (affecting newcomer Khomotso Manyaka) puts her studies on hold to handle one unbearable situation after another: her infant sister’s death, her stepfather’s drunken madness, her orphaned best friend’s truck-stop prostitution, her mother’s gradual withering away. The disease that dare not speak its name has an endless supply of strained euphemisms—”influenza,” “this other thing,” “the bug,” or ” . . . “—and is treated by witchcraft or by the quack in town who dispenses herbal supplements. Based on Canadian writer Allan Stratton’s 2004 young-adult novel Chanda’s Secrets (which is set in an unnamed sub-Saharan African country), Schmitz’s film, adapted by Dennis Foon, importantly functions as a reminder that silence equals death. But the well-intentioned project, from a director born to German immigrants in Cape Town in 1960, has the odd feeling of being made by a patronizing outsider—one who wants to assure his audience that they’re incapable of the backward thinking of his characters. Schmitz never states exactly when Life, Above All is set, but elides some particularly shameful recent South African history by not even alluding to former president Thabo Mbeki’s sympathies with AIDS denialists in the aughts. Life, Above All suggests that ignorance and stigmatization are a problem only in the village, not in the highest office of government.