Life, Above All (2011) Review

Life, Above All presents itself as an enlightening perspective of friends and family and the intricate web the two weave through the lives of the humble and meek.

The story takes place in South Africa and begins in the heartbreaking aftermath of a small child’s death. Audiences are introduced to Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) amid glimpses of the on-goings in preparation for the funeral of her sister, Sarah. Though understandably forlorn, Chanda’s mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is consumed by despair that is intangible and obstructive.

Mother and daughter share an impenetrable bond and clash only on their individual refusal to betray their respective friends. Each has a friend of questionable motives that deepen the ever pending explanation of Sarah’s death. Each is fiercely loyal to a person she believes not only has a right to her acquaintance, but is owed a debt for her specific loyalty. Lillian has Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), the next door neighbor. Chanda has Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a schoolmate.

Viewers will find themselves caught between a family drama that escalates to a community showdown. In this small village are very simple people who lead very limited lives. The word of authority is accepted without question and gossip is more damaging than outright crime. Most members of the community have limited educations. Luxuries such as medical insurance and air conditioning are never discussed or considered as options. In this neighborhood, among these souls, there is only God and The Devil.

The story moves at the pace and logic of the discerning thinker. Each revelation is need-to-know. As the truth approaches realization, the epistemology of the main characters is allowed to resonate. The shortcomings so often found within human nature are endearing and shocking in their attachment to pride and, ultimately, the fear of rejection.

The scope of the cinematography is consistent to the South African climate. Audiences are sweltering in the sun and excessive heat as life falls apart for a single mother and her family. Scenes appear to soft focus on church members and bystanders alike as the sting of sweat runs into the eyes of those who are watching; waiting for the ever-present decidedness of Chanda’s evolution. The use of digital cameras, hawk lenses and ARRI technique allow the authenticity of daily treks through the locality to sear an indelible imprint on the psyche.

True to African form, the music lends itself to the integrity of the message it carries. There are laments and chants that conjure the spirits of the righteous. Dance beats channel the hum of the dessert terrain and blend seamlessly with drums of Latin Rhumba. Song is the release that frees the tension of the tortured soul – the joyful noise possessing the strength to cast out demons.

The spoken language is a compelling South African dialect known as Sepedi. To the untrained ear it skews a romantic mixture of the sacred Latin of Catholic faith with imprints of French, Italian and American English. Viewers will appreciate the recognizable phrases of the vernacular and find it a pleasant commonality among the complex nature of the unfolding tension and rampant strife.

When Lillian finds herself overwhelmed by the imminent presence of tragedy and longing, it is her decision to return to her birthplace that snaps Chanda into action and propels the final conclusion. For at its very core, Life, Above All is a story involving women and the choices they make about love and reputation. But it is the emotional access to the suffering of the passionate that turns these strangers into the viewers’ friends.

It is far too easy to get caught-up in the dramas of the mundane. However, there exists a juxtaposition of life experience and reason. Lillian understands her daughter’s attachment to a friend that lives outside of society’s tolerance. Esther acknowledges that her perceived misfortune is truly the fear of the ignorant. Mrs. Tafa is cold-hearted as she aches with the burden she shares with Lillian, a child of her own, lost long ago. Chanda is the emerging beacon that sheds light on acceptance and tolerance within her community.

Producer Oliver Stoltz had the goal of bringing Allan Stratton’s novel, Chanda’s Secrets, about life and the children of South Africa to the big screen. Considering the gravity of the subject matter, a beautiful and passionate tale of survival and accomplishment is woven through the hardships and mysticism of adversity. Life, Above All is the film for those who believe in faith and the triumph of good will.