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Modern allegory puts face on AIDS epidemic in Africa

  • Written by Tri-State Defender Newsroom

Thirty years after the AIDS epidemic first rattled the world, it still rages in sub-Sahara Africa. Few films have captured the plague’s fury on the motherland, until now. “Life, Above All”
Stars: 3.5

Thirty years after the AIDS epidemic first rattled the world, it still rages in sub-Sahara Africa. Few films have captured the plague’s fury on the motherland, until now. This enlightening, sensitive and inspiring screen adaptation of Allan Stratton’s novel “Chanda’s Secrets” puts a human face on a cure-defying disease.

 Life above all
A village matron, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela, ‘Hotel Rwanda’), provides 13-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), with much-needed support as Chandra’s mom battles AIDS and Chandra deals with rumors and repercussions. (Courtesy photo)

Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a 13-year-old girl, lives in Elandsdoom, a dusty, rural township outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. She has her hands full. After the death of her baby sister, her mom, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) becomes extremely ill and disappears mysteriously. Her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is a useless drunk. Her stepsiblings are unruly and try her patience, yet Chanda mothers them the best she can.

Neighbors gossip endlessly, implying Chanda’s mom has AIDS. They ostracize the family, as if they could pick up the disease from a sneeze. The little girl takes on adult woes, and looks to other outcasts for moral support. She associates with a known teen prostitute Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), which further stigmatizes her. A village matron, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela, Hotel Rwanda), secrets Lillian out of town and seeks to squash the vile rumors. But, as Chanda discovers more details about her mother’s dilemma, she becomes determined to confront the villagers wrath and bring her family together.

The novel (a bestseller in 11 countries) and the film make a vulnerable child the central protagonist. Chanda confronts gossip, adults’ derision and prejudice. She deals with abandonment issues, alcoholism, prostitution and disease. She withstands the ignorance and intolerance surrounding a deadly disease with a fierceness that is enviable and ultimately galvanizing.

Credit novelist Allan Stratton for the intimate, courageous storyline and the astute glimpse of South African culture. Dennis Foon, a Canadian screenwriter, retains the essence of the book and the spirit of its diminutive heroine. German director and former South African resident Oliver Schmitz helps the cast find the souls of their characters, keeps the narrative on course and measures out the dramatic peaks perfectly. You will cry on cue. Monstrous emotional abuse is heaved on an unprotected child and as you witness her plight you hope she can do what adults can let her heart, compassion, and love guide her.

The actors take on difficult roles, those of characters stymied by ignorance and fear. Their actions, which seem oh-so graphic, will make you grimace or rip you heart out. Mvelase, a stage actress, marks her screen debut by losing a lot of weight to play a mom who is wasting away. Aubrey Poolo, a former member of the South African State Theatre in Pretoria, makes Jona’s drunken stupor seem real. Manamela, as a terse domineering woman, shows amazing emotional depth in dramatic scenes when she and Chanda have power struggles. Their relationship is as weathered and nerve-racking as that of any overbearing surrogate mother and child.

Manyaka’s performance gives the film its heart. She was plucked from a local choir and turns her first film role into a classic portrayal.

As the drama crests and subsides, the musical score and deft cinematography (Bernhard Jasper) accentuate the right moments and cast a discerning eye.

The film plays out like a modern allegory with strong life lessons. This is a haunting, revealing look at that pandemic scourge called AIDS and the young victims it leaves in its aftermath.

(Visit NNPA Film Critic at DwightBrownInk.com.)

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