Looking for a lifesaver

Life, Above All

“The curse” might also be called “the disease which must not be named.”

“The curse” might also be called “the disease which must not be named.”

Rated 2.0

Director Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All is based on Allan Stratton’s Chanda’s Secrets, a novel for young readers about a 16-year-old girl in sub-Saharan Africa trying to hold her family together in the face of a taboo so great, it can’t be named. Chanda’s infant sister has just died, and her mother is too grief-stricken and sick to make the funeral arrangements. In this and other things, Chanda must step up, putting her schooling on hold to tend to the needs of her mother and two half-siblings while dealing with her worthless, drunken stepfather and the ignorance and superstition of their village.

In adapting the Canadian Stratton’s English-language novel, Schmitz and writer Dennis Foon have moved the location of their story to Schmitz’s native South Africa and filmed it in the local language, Sotho, the native tongue of his mostly nonprofessional cast. The premise of Life, Above All sounds so worthy, even noble—telling a story of courage and perseverance in the face of poverty, fear and intolerance—that it’s no pleasure to report that the movie is more than a little pretentious (as evidenced by the title—changed from Stratton’s straightforward original to something that sounds at once highfalutin and generic, like a TV soap opera), and sitting through it involves more drudgery than enlightenment.

Chanda is played by Khomotso Manyaka, who looks somewhat younger than the 16-year-old in whose voice Stratton wrote his novel. Manyaka has an appealing face and an unselfconscious manner on camera, but Foon’s script expresses none of the inner thoughts that run through Stratton’s narrative. We are left to fill in Chanda’s character for ourselves, taking cues from the tersely subtitled dialogue and reading (or imagining) Chanda’s thoughts from young Ms. Manyaka’s unwavering gaze.

Chanda’s mother Lilian (Lerato Mvelase) is too ill to deal with her remaining children or her philandering husband, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo), so Chanda must confront Jonah in his drunken stupor just to get the money to pay for the infant Sarah’s burial. The only help available to her is the neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), but Mrs. Tafa runs hot and cold, and she and Chanda are often at cross purposes. The older lady disapproves of Chanda’s best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), an orphan girl at loose ends since the death of her parents, eventually resorting to prostitution to survive. What killed Esther’s parents and Chanda’s sister, and what Chanda increasingly fears is also destroying her mother and Jonah, is AIDS, but no one will mention or admit it. They call it influenza, or “the disease,” or even “the curse”—anything but what it really is.

That’s why Mrs. Tafa and the other villagers shun Esther; it’s like the fear of the evil eye. The movie is almost half over before even Chanda will say the word aloud, and even then she risks being an outcast and a pariah. But she must face facts squarely if she’s to hold her family—what’s left of it—together.

Chanda sees her mother, Lilian, seeking treatment with a village witch doctor and a pseudo-medical quack in a nearby town, and finally going away to stay with more distant relatives, all in an effort to shield Chanda and the others from her “curse.” But even they turn Lilian out to die in the open, as Chanda discovers when she goes to bring her mother home: Lilian’s crippled sister (Tina Mnumzana) insists that Lilian’s disease was a judgment from God for marrying Chanda’s late father against her family’s wishes, and Chanda explodes: “Her disease is no more a judgment from God than your club foot!” This is not how families are supposed to treat one another; at least, it’s not what Chanda intends to allow.

Schmitz gives his movie a polish of gritty, sun-bleached neorealism, while placing as few demands as possible on his inexperienced cast. There are none of the novel’s flashbacks to fill in the story of Chanda’s family; all we know is what we can see and surmise from what is going on right in front of us, like a documentary. But underneath the vérité surface, Life, Above All is a melodrama, and Schmitz’s uplifting ending feels simplistic and too pat. If the problem the movie posits were this easily solved, there likely wouldn’t be any problem at all.