Movie Review: “Life, Above All”

Written by Brent Holmes December 08, 2011

Not quite above all.

Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All is a film in denial of its own conventions. It is a film largely about the AIDS pandemic that tries to be a heart-warming story about Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl who must rise up to be the head of her house after her young sister’s death leaves her mother bedridden.

The film downplays its focus on the AIDS pandemic, not mentioning the word until over half-way through the movie. However, there is a lot of allusion to it that only the most uninformed viewer would fail to understand.

Khomotso Manyaka perfectly captures the maturity of the 12 year old head of her house, Chanda. However, the character feels too constructed to be her position. Chanda is essentially flawless: she does well at school, when she is able to go; she is skeptical of scams being run by witch and corporate doctors; and she acts morally in every situation and suffers no real negative repercussions.

Chanda is an intelligent, likable character placed at the mercy of a society that is religious and superstitious. There is a rebellious fire to Chanda that detaches her too much from her society. She is more archetype than character, and the other character’s follow suit with Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) as the town gossip, Chanda’s father Jonah(Aubrey Poolo) as the town drunk, and Chanda’s best friend Ester (Keaobaka Makanyane) as a stigmatized prostitute.

While the acting remains top-notch, the writing doesn’t have much strength. The ending feels like too much of a cop-out. With the film dealing with heavy themes and harsh realities such as rumours, societal stigmatization, AIDS, and child orphans growing up too quickly, it leaves many of the its subplots easily resolved. It feels like it is undercutting its characters.

The film was adapted from a novel by Canadian playwright and novelist, Allan Stratton’s Chandra’s Secrets. It would be interesting to see what happens in the follow-up novel Chandra’s Wars, or even look at how the novel differs from the movie, as these books may provide a deeper look at the themes than Schmitz’s film.

Life, Above All is a film about AIDS that really doesn’t add anything to what has already been said before. It’s hard to tell if Schmitz’s is aware of this and deliberately trying to downplay that element.

Perhaps, it is that with films that present a pessimistic representation of the AIDS pandemic that seeing something that is optimistic feels out of place. There was a film released in 2005 called 3 Needles that was absolutely unrelenting in its portrayal of how the scourge of AIDS has affected the world. It didn’t downplay its focus or try to shift its theme to bring in deeper meaning.

Life, Above All tries to reach above that brutal reality, but ends up losing control of its focus through its archetypal characters and a contrived plot. The result is a film that will shock the unexperienced viewer with its intense emotions, but if you’ve seen films dealing with these types of themes before then you’ve seen this one.

My Rating 6.5/10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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