A ‘Life’ Where HIV And Ignorance Are Twin Epidemics
Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
July 14, 2011
Life, Above All, a well-intentioned drama about the impact of HIV-AIDS in South Africa, is the kind of film one wants to praise to the skies. With an all-black cast speaking in a subtitled local dialect, the movie is admirably lacking in pale-skinned film stars deploying their granite jaws to save the natives from themselves, a fantasy of white rescue that continues to plague most Hollywood films about the African subcontinent.
Directed by Oliver Schmitz, a white South African expatriate now living in Germany, Life, Above All focuses tightly on the corrosive effect of the epidemic on children, family and community. Shot on location in a village near Johannesburg, the movie stars Khomotso Manyaka, a local beauty in her first acting role, as Chanda, a sturdy preteen whose mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), falls victim to a groundswell of rumor-mongering when her baby dies and she herself sickens. That her symptoms go unnamed and largely untreated is strategic, for Life, Above All is about the fearful silence that surrounds HIV-AIDS in a country with one of the highest rates of infection in the world.
When Lillian exiles herself from the village, Chanda sets off on a hero’s journey to find her mother, helped and hindered by representational figures who sketch the plight of all such afflicted communities, yet barely qualify as characters. A female witch doctor brandishes spells and snakes. A drunken stepfather (Aubrey Poolo) proves of little use to anyone, least of all himself. Chandra’s loyal best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), is drafted into child prostitution, while the village gossip Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), a matriarch who is pivotal to the plot, fans the flames of hostility toward Chanda’s mother.
Given that a staggering one-third of all South African women in their 20s are HIV-positive, it seems right to cast Life, Above All as a maternal melodrama, or even as a parable, yet Schmitz, who mainly works in television, brings an unnecessarily heavy hand to his inherently incendiary material. For every turn of the dramatic screw, he brings on thunder and torrential rains. The script groans beneath a mass of symbolic winking and declamatory exposition that has the unfortunate effect of turning the villagers into credulous simpletons, ready to blow with any wind that carries them.
In large part, that’s because a crucial player is strangely missing from this scenario. From the start, the spread of HIV-AIDS in South Africa has been a political problem to its core. Like many liberal whites who supported the black struggle to end apartheid, Schmitz — who made the 1988 film Mapantsula, about a petty thief who is radicalized in prison — seems unwilling to point the finger at a post-apartheid government that, under former President Thabo Mbeki, willfully discredited anti-retroviral drugs for years while advocating wacky dietary remedies and feeding tribal superstitions about the disease. Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, has promised better, but as someone who admitted at his own rape trial to having sex with an HIV-positive prostitute then showering to avoid infection, he’s hardly a role model.
Gesturing briefly at corrupt doctors in the pay of private corporations peddling quack remedies, Schmitz ignores the political dimension and heads for the low-lying hills of village unity, inspirational uplift and the heroism of one plucky, persistent girl. That makes for a tidy, hopeful ending, but one that does violence, however inadvertently, to the continuing abandonment of young women like Chanda and her family by a government that has only begun to address the plague in its midst. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]