Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Life, Above All
IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -
Life, Above All (directed by Oliver Schmitz, screenplay by Dennis Foon based on the novel Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton) was South Africa’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2010 Oscars where it made to the short list of candidates but not to the final list of nominees.
It’s about a 12 year old girl named Chanda (played by Khomotso Manyaka) taking care of her mother Lillian (played by Lerato Mvelase) and her younger half-brother and sister living in a small village outside of Johannesburg. As the movie begins, Chanda’s infant sister Sara had just died. Her mother is seemingly paralyzed by grief. So it’s left to Chanda to skip school to go to the funeral parlor to make arrangements for the funeral (and make excuses for her mother as she does so). Thanked by her neighbor (grandmother?) Mrs Tafa (played by Harriet Manamela), Chanda is reminded “your baby sister died of the flu, just like my son was killed when they tried to break into our house.” Why was she reminded of that? “Remember this Chanda, because people talk....”
What’s the big secret? Well, as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Chanda’s mother probably has AIDS. Chanda’s father (her mother’s first husband) who died some time earlier probably had AIDS as well. Chanda’s step-father, Jonah (played by Aubrey Poolo) reduced to being a drunk, is sickly as well (even as Chanda’s much younger brother and sister revere him, because he is their dad).
Finally, Chanda’s mother’s family isn’t helping. Why? Because they’re still angry at Chanda’s mother for having left with/married Chanda’s father rather than the man that they had arranged for her to marry. As far as Chanda’s mother’s family understands it, Chanda’s mother had all this coming to her.
What a sad, sad story this is! I suspect that part of the reason why it didn’t make it all the way through the Oscars nomination process (or received more notoriety than it has) is because the story could be perceived as “a downer” perpetuating an image of Africans/the poor as simply victims to be pitied and perhaps “helped.”
Yet I do believe the movie is more than that. First, the movie portrays a remarkably strong 12-year old, who despite her age, calmly and kindly takes care of the people who need her from her mother, to her half-brother/sister to even her (orphaned and at times wayward...) best friend Esther (played by Keaobaka Makanyane), all of whom would have been utterly lost without her.
And I would submit that many/most of us would not have to dig all that far to find similar stories in our families’ pasts. My own grandmother (back in Czechoslovakia) had been taken out of school when she was 10 ostensibly to take care of her mother when her mother fell ill (Her mother lived for another 35 years afterwards). A number of years ago, I buried an 87 year old man who came to Chicago from Mexico _alone_ when he was 13, found a job and brought a good part of his family here. Last year, I buried another elderly woman this time from Poland, who came to Chicago as a 17 year old during World War II by way of Eastern Poland, the Soviet Union, Iran, India and (via a Polish-American relief organization) Mexico before coming here. After finding a job here, she was able to bring her younger brother and sister to Chicago (from a refugee camp in India) by the same route (They never saw either of their parents again, though their mother made it back to Poland after the war). The stories of a lot of our immigrant parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are filled with suffering _and overcoming suffering_ not unlike the story of Chanda.
The story of Chanda is also one of _choosing loyalty to those who needed her_ rather abandoning them to neighborhood gossips who preferred to talk about theor sufferings rather than helping them. One of my favorite quotations from the writings of Pope John Paul II is “Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness...” (Encyclical Letter Centisimus Annus, #58).
As such, Life, Above All is more than simply a movie about misery. Instead, in the tradition of great compassionate “realist” movies of the past, ranging from Italy’s Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) to Brazil’s Walter Salles’ Central do Brasil (Central Station) to indeed, South Africa’s Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi, Life, Above All is an invitation to enter into Chanda’s world and to hopefully _see ourselves_ in her.
I would be remiss to add that my own (USA) Province of the Servite Order has been responsible for the Servite Order’s mission in the KwaZulu-Natal State of South Africa and that in recent years one of the primary ministries of that mission has become its uNkulunkulu uNathi AIDS Project.
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