Monday 23 May 2011

Stolen childhoods: "Life, Above All"

Life, Above All is a tough, honest record of an African tragedy that displays very nearly as great a feel for the people of a place battered by the elements as Steinbeck and Ford did for the Dustbowl of The Grapes of Wrath. In his adaptation of Allan Stratton's novel Chanda's Secrets, the South African director Oliver Schmitz takes us into a shantytown north of Johannesburg, and into the lives of a one-parent family whose youngest daughter has just perished in uncertain circumstances: the official word is influenza, but village gossip suggests something more besides. Teenage heroine Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is first observed heading to a nearby funeral home blessed with an extensive range of kid-scaled coffins: clearly, this one child's demise isn't an isolated event, but the real kicker follows when Chanda returns to the home she shares with her ailing mother and her two younger siblings, and discovers somebody's made off with the cash she's set aside to bury her sister.

"It's nothing," insists the heroine's mama, referring to the lesion growing on her leg, and Life, Above All speaks more eloquently and powerfully than most about a particular culture of denial: the impact of The Disease Whose Name Dare Not Be Spoken upon an entire generation denied the childhood, the education and the lives that are their right, in having to care for parents rapidly growing weaker and more vulnerable than they themselves are. (Only Chanda speaks of AIDS directly; others in the community prefer the euphemistic, responsibility-shucking "God's wrath".)

That Life, Above All never feels preachy or issue-led is down to the way Schmitz roots it in character. There's robust neighbour Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), who - with an eye fixed firmly on social respectability and keeping up the appearance of the neighborhood - drags Chanda's mother along with her to witch doctors, quack doctors and the church, in an insistent search for a quick fix. There's the mother's lover, abdicating all responsibility for the child's death, who turns up on the family's doorstep whenever he needs an easy lay, and robs them blind for the privilege. There is Chanda's impoverished best friend Esther (a performance of staggering maturity from young Keaobaka Makanyane), who - heartbreakingly - rides her bike down to the truckstop to prostitute herself, on the grounds that's what everybody assumes a girl like her would be doing anyway: "At least this way I'm earning money."

And there is Chanda herself, beautifully incarnated by Manyaka, who is tough and brave and smart, by some considerable distance the most indelible movie heroine of 2011 thus far, and yet someone for whom you retain only terrible fears she, too, will come to be dragged down by these circumstances. (Would it be crass and reductive to propose her as a Precious of the townships? Possibly.) If his protagonist's progress is never easy, Schmitz at least strikes the right balance for the film between despair and optimism: a pop song on a car stereo, a first dance in a neighbour's backyard giving tiny signs of encouragement, and preventing it all from becoming a bit too much. The film's heart is as big as the Serengeti, and its empathy and compassion are equally boundless.

Life, Above All opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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