by HELEN GEIB
South African drama Life, Above All is a very worthy film, but it’s hard to see why it should be one of the favored few foreign language titles to receive theatrical distribution on the American arthouse circuit this year. Its heroine is a 12-year-old girl living in a poor village outside Johannesburg whose childhood is cut short when her mother is stricken with AIDS. Misfortune rains down on young Chanda like a series of hammer blows explicating a host of pressing contemporary social issues: HIV/AIDS- so feared that when it is finally named in the third act, the word reverberates like a gunshot; adultery and promiscuity- mother contracted the disease from her philandering husband and their newborn baby is the family’s first victim; child prostitution- Chanda’s best friend, orphaned by AIDS, resorts to it and is ostracized for it; and yet more, including arranged marriage, witch doctors and snake oil salesmen, and alcohol abuse.
The film has the strong flavor of a two hour long PSA for the home market, designed to be shown at schools, churches, and community centers; its purpose to educate and persuade, its target audience not merely a few individuals but whole communities in the sway of misinformation, superstition, and prevention and treatment-preventing stigmas surrounding illness and death. Intentions and lessons are unimpeachable, but the didacticism rapidly overwhelms the drama. Based on the 2004 novel Chanda’s Secrets by Canadian author Allan Stratton, the film’s celebration of the human spirit in a young girl’s resilience and courage, which plants the seeds of change in her community, is better conveyed by the new title. Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda is consistently affecting in her film debut.
2 1/2 stars