Film review: Life, Above All

Life, Above All
Dreamer Joint Venture Filmproduction, Enigma Pictures, Niama Film, Senator Film Produktion

STARRING Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Lerato Mvelase, Harriet Lenabe
WRITTEN BY Dennis Foon, Allan Stratton (adapted from his novel)
PRODUCED BY Greig Buckle, Martin Hämer, Daniela Ramin, Thomas Reisser, Helge Sasse, Oliver Stoltz
DIRECTED BY Oliver Schmitz

SHOT BY Bernhard Jasper
MUSIC BY Ali N. Askin, Ian Osrin
DISTRIBUTED BY Sony Pictures Classics

Screened 2011-07-13

Cannes Film Festival 2010 Un Certain Regard
83rd Academy Awards, South African entry for Best Foreign Language Film (which is not to imply it made the final five noms)

The story is not a revolution. Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is about 13 years old and lives among the struggling lower classes of South Africa (this look into South African life is the most interesting part of the film). She can’t so much as complete a school day without leaving to hold her family together. Her father’s a souse. Her only friend whores herself to truckers. And when Chanda’s mother begins to show signs of having AIDS, the society around her shirks in fear, lies to Chanda and ends up sending the mother away. Good times. Midway, it seems that the film will be “King of the Hill in South Africa” (Soderbergh’s Hill, not Judge’s), and that kept my attention – the story of a family descending into poverty with only a young child to hold things together. Great! By the end, however, I failed to see how Chanda’s AIDS Quest complemented the narrative’s through-line – so really, it’s just AIDS and the way a class relates to this. But the story is not High Noon, it’s just another “struggling to survive at the bottom” tale. “Just” implies quite the criticism, so I’ll quantify:

Life, Above All is an entirely German production of a gay Canadian’s book about AIDS in South Africa and the lower classes. Combine that soup with the bureaucracy of television production and your product will be quite the light beer. Life, Above All feels a hell of a lot like television, and, surprise, the director primarily works in TV, rarely does films (being born in South Africa, I’m sure, made him a shoe-in for the position). What does TV-direction entail? Functionality and rare dynamism. If actors stand out its because of what they brought with them, since the production itself cannot inspire. I’m wondering to whom this was a passion project… likely Schmitz. I don’t think there’s a single laugh in the entire film… It’s like an after-school special. Now all this sounds quite dismissive, so I’ll just iterate that it is not quite a poor film, and not a poorly made film. But there is almost nothing striking. It’s a bit sad, and then it ends and says, “Sometimes life sucks, chin up, shed a tear.” Frankly I don’t know if the difference in Chanda at the story’s end compared to the beginning is a measurable one (though Khomotso, the young newcomer, is certainly excellent). But for such a film to succeed, emotionally, the viewer must be acquainted with similar class struggles or live in South Africa; he/she must already have the emotional experience. Life, Above All actually feels a bit like Biutiful, both containing low-class struggling families, the misfortune of disease and a somewhat episodic progression… and while Life is mercifully shorter than Biutiful, it is also less fun, impactful and artistic. Ba-zing. I’m sorry, Mr. Schmitz.

written by David Ashley