Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Schmitz’s Life, Above All

Surely, the fall of Apartheid heralded a golden age for South Africa, right? Not exactly. In fact, the rhetoric and policies of several ANC administrations has been quite problematic, particularly with regards to the country’s AIDS epidemic. The resulting stigma surrounding the disease makes a tragic situation so much worse for the resilient young protagonist of Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at Film Forum.

Chanda’s mother Lillian ought to have more energy. Everyone pretends it is nerves or some such ailment, but this is just willful denial. Everyone realizes what she has and understands she more than likely contracted it from Chanda’s absentee stepfather Jonah, who is now determined to drink and sin his way into the grave. Unfortunately, AIDS does not work that way.

In Chanda’s hardscrabble village outside Joburg, AIDS is not the only social pathology to contend with. Prostitution is considered the only means of survival for her shockingly young looking best friend Esther. Of course, this also involves the very real and present danger of infection.

Above is a blistering indictment of the superstitious prejudice and misogyny rampant in South African townships that forces patients into seclusion rather seeking life prolonging treatment, or at least a relatively comfortable death. Yet, despite the film’s palpable anger, it never lobs cheap shots at the church. In fact, Sunday services are presented as a rare moment of peace for Chanda.

Khomotso Manyaka’s fully dimensional portrayal of Chanda could well become iconic in South Africa. Despite the courage and tenacity she projects every step of the way, the audience remains keenly aware she is still just a vulnerable young girl. Yet, for pure hard-won pathos, Keabaka Makanyane’s Esther might even outdo her.

Re-emerging from years spent working in German television (in prestigious capacities), Oliver Schmitz returns to the sort of topical cinematic naturalism that made his breakout film Mapantsula the toast of the international festival circuit. Yet, that earlier work was very much a product of its era. In contrast, Above has a Dickensian quality that should hold up over time.

Perhaps the film’s ultimate conclusion may strike some viewers as a bit too pat and convenient. However, at this point Chanda the character has earned a break and most in the audience will probably be happy to allow it to her. Overall, Above paints an uncompromising picture of contemporary South Africa, redeemed only by the defiance of its young cast and characters. A heavy, engrossing film, Above is definitely recommended when it opens this Friday (7/15) at Film Forum.