In Elandsdoorn, a small township outside of Johannesburg, Chanda's mother is critically ill and her stepfather is an absent drunkard, leaving the 12-year-old girl to arrange for the funeral of her newborn sister and care for her younger siblings. Her only friend is the willful Esther who is ostracised from the township because she works as a child prostitute. The seemingly tight-knit community is rife with prejudice and superstition. When a nosy neighbour sends Chandra's mother away, the distraught girl is left to fend for her family in an increasingly hostile environment.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The German-born, South African-raised director Oliver Schmitz gets several crucial elements spot on in Life, Above All, his story of a 12-year-old black South African girl struggling to find her way in life as her family disintegrates. In terms of setting, he uses the tidy rural township of Elandsdoorn, outside Johannesburg, and the bright, crisp cinematography of Bernhard Jasper depicts it as just another working class redoubt that has both the benefits and problems of a tight-knit community; this is not the tangle of urban shanties complete with endemic crime that an outside filmmaker may well have alighted upon.
Schmitz also draws a compelling central performance from newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as his adolescent protagonist, Chanda. Silent and diligent – when she stares at the designs on the children’s pajamas drying on the washing line you can sense her yearning for the freedom of childhood – she increasingly covers for her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), and at the film’s opening, with tears slowly welling up in her eyes, she goes to arrange the funeral details and casket for her younger half-sister, Sarah, who has passed away. Afterwards, still grieving, she has to track down her drunken stepfather and recover the money he has stolen from her mother so the funeral director can be paid.
The world of Elandsdoorn, adapted by screenwriter Dennis Foon from Allan Stratton’s novel, is reminiscent, to a degree, of the socially intimate and judgmental milieus that marked the affluent 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. People literally stand in the street, staring at Chanda’s house as the problems unfold, and gossip comes with a vindictive edge. When Lillian grows increasingly ill, her friend and neighbour Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) tells people that she has been cursed, rather than the truth that she is HIV-positive and suffering from the onset of AIDS. A witch doctor, instead of a medical practitioner, is dispatched to the house, but it means there’s less chance of a fearful mob turning on the family.
Chanda soldiers on – when she goes to a community party and briefly, gently dances a massive smile suddenly divides her face offering temporary relief – but options are short. There’s little official help for her mother, and the stern Mrs. Tafa is intent on separating Chanda from her best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who has given up on school to start working as a truck stop prostitute; when she’s beaten and raped by a client she can only identify him by his luxury car. These girls are living the lives – complex, often tragic – of women, and while Schmitz can capture the elemental feel of that, the baleful glances, lasting bruises and dusty streets, he’s not always able to give them a voice to match the naturalistic performances.
The dialogue is sometimes stilted, and the camera overcompensates visually for the lack of resonance in what’s being said. It’s not altogether surprising that Life, Above All decides to close on a series of noble gestures, hoping that the relief of loss and transition towards adulthood can compensate for the sometimes clunky narrative. It may leave you feeling hopeful, but it’s not the most convincing of resolutions. Enough is seen of Elandsdoorn to know how complex life is there.