Review of Life, Above All, Directed by Oliver Schmitz
By KENDRICK KUO
Life, Above All is not a film for the faint of heart. This gut-wrenching South African film, adapted from Alan Stratton’s novel Chandra’s Secret, is a fictional thread in a very real piece of South Africa’s fabric—namely, children orphaned by AIDS. Chandra is a 12-year old girl, living with her mother and two younger siblings fathered by another man who is an alcoholic that returns to visit his children unexpectedly at random intervals. She lives in a village where gossip is the lifeblood of the community, especially when coupled with a heightened sense of propriety and pharisaism. Life, Above All gives us the story of Chandra, who must face adult challenges as a young girl, stare death in the face, and yet remain true to herself. More importantly, the film asks us to question our prejudices.
The opening scenes of Life, Above All show Chandra having to arrange a funeral for her youngest sibling, who died in infancy. We immediately see Chandra as a young girl forced to carry the responsibilities of a household’s head because her mother is incapacitated and both her father and her step-father gone. Mrs. Tafa, their next door neighbor, plays the role of a helpful aunt. Chandra’s mother is sick and they go to visit a doctor, but that doesn’t help. Eventually, building up to the climax of the film, her mother leaves for another village. In the meantime, Chandra takes in a girl who was forced into prostitution, much to Mrs. Tafa’s consternation and the scandalization of the village.
Chandra keeps on trying to contact of her mother via telephone to ascertain the date of her return, until it is revealed that Chandra’s mother has HIV/AIDS and will not be returning in order to spare her children from stigmatization. The film’s portrayal of the deep prejudice against those with HIV/AIDS is a searing condemnation along the same proportions as The Crucible. It is more like a witch hunt, albeit without a trial.
Chandra travels to her mother’s hometown, against Mrs. Tafa’s wishes, only to find that she’s been exiled by her own family. Chandra finds her mother in the outskirts of the village, waiting to die. In one of the most touching moments in the film, Chandra cradles her mother and gives her water using a wet cloth. She vows to bring her mother home, but her troubles are not over yet.
Chandra returns to the village with her mother via an ambulance, and all the neighbors come out of their homes and begin verbally abusing Chandra for bringing her infected mother into their presence. Mrs. Tafa, next door, hides behind her window blinds and begins her transformation as she is torn between her desire to protect Chandra and her fear of what the neighbors will think about her in their tight-knit community.
Ironically, this village is “Christian,” in that most people are shown singing in the church choir and attending service at various intervals. Simultaneously, there is a syncretism occurring between indigenous shamanistic folk religion and Christianity, which is portrayed in a scene where Chandra’s family hires a witch doctor to cast out her mother’s sickness. But it is these “Christians” that condemn Chandra and her mother and are most fearful of the stigma it will bring. They were already wary of the prostitute living with them, but now they have had enough.
Then came Mrs. Tafa’s conversion moment. She steps out of her house and plants herself between the mob and Chandra’s house, bravely calling them out for their hypocrisy. Mrs. Tafa ridicules them for the scandalous things they do behind their own doors, but that no one talks about. In essence, let the one without sin cast the first stone.
The biblical parallels (John 8) are so clear that I would be inclined to say that the filmmakers must have wanted to draw them. After Mrs. Tafa’s challenge—much like the Scriptural account—the mob disperses, some in true repentance and others angrier than ever. Christian charity, the kind that Jesus would recognize, is not merely helping out respectable people when you have the resources and the time—as with Mrs. Tafa taking Chandra and her siblings in when Chandra’s mother left–but taking in the lowly, the disreputable, the scandalizing.
This is the challenge of Life, Above All. Will those infected with HIV/AIDS be ostracized from society or will they be treated and welcomed as those made in God’s image, for the sake of the sick as well as for their children who face the life of orphans? For Christians, this challenge is broader–not just for the sake of the sick and for the sake of the orphaned, but also, ultimately, for the sake of God’s fame. They will know we are Christians by our love.