Life, Above All
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Life, Above All

Newcomer Khomotso Manyaka is compelling as Chanda in Life, Above All.

Life, Above All

by Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany, Contemporary World Cinema

In a film about the stigma surrounding the disease, it is fitting that the number of times that the word AIDS is actually spoken in Life, Above All can be counted on one hand. Characters sometimes refer to “the bug” or “the virus,” but mostly, and most powerfully, they don’t say anything at all. While it comments on a society that needs to break the silence about AIDS in South Africa, the film is at its best when nobody is speaking.
When her baby sister dies and her mother Lillian falls into a depression,12-year-old Chanda is left to hold her family together, caring for her two half-siblings, keeping up with her school work, and keeping her drunken step-father Jonah away. And things just get worse from there: Jonah turns up, skeletal, clearly dying of AIDS, Lillian begins showing signs of illness, and the community begins to ostracize the family.
The often bleak plot (based on the novel Chanda’s Secrets by Canadian Allan Stratton) is offset by gorgeous cinematography: the light is precious, and the camera oscillates between intimate, almost too-close portraits and fragmented, incomplete shots captured through windows and door frames, keeping us almost claustrophobically close, and then holding us at bay. It’s beautiful, and it’s effective.
There are some disappointments: the uplifting ending seems an unrealistic departure, and there are times when the film doesn’t trust its audience and begins to tell more than it shows. On the whole, however, Life, Above All is intimate and moving.
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