The beginning of every December marks World AIDS day, which for me usually means U2 front man Bono comes out from his shell when he's not touring to promote AIDS awareness with the goal of reducing and eliminating the disease. It's a noble goal and the intentions are admirable, but I'm a cynic at heart. Frankly I don't need an Irishman extolling the virtues of American blues singers or the plight of people in Harlem, particularly when I can hunt this information out on my own. And I certainly don't need him to tell me how widely the damage of AIDS in African nations has been, particularly when dramatic films such as Life Above All tell their stories more emotionally and dramatically.
The script was based on the novel "Chanda's Secrets" by Allan Stratton and adapted by Dennis Foon (Terry). Oliver Schmitz directed (Paris, Je T'Aime.) directed the film, which shown mainly through the eyes of Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a 12-year old South African girl and the oldest of three in the home of a single mother named Lillian (Lerato Mvelase). Lillian's two other children are from a second husband, and a third has recently been born but contracted AIDS from Lillian and died in her infancy. Chanda deals with ordeal of paying for a coffin for her baby sister, while attempting to shelter her younger siblings (who dislike Chanda) from news of the death. Her neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) makes her and her mother aware of the gossip surrounding her sister's death and those appearances that should be maintained despite the depression with Chanda and Lillian. Additionally, Chanda is friends with Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) who is Chanda's age but does not go to school and prostitutes herself to truckers, and is another optic that Mrs. Tafa worries about for Chanda and the family. Additionally, Lillian starts to show symptoms of the virus and leaves the home, forcing Chanda to help raise the children on her own with assistance by Mrs. Tafa.
The big thing to talk about in the film (aside from the subject matter) is Manyaka's performance, which for a girl of her age is simply amazing. The resilience that Chanda has despite being told what she should or should not do is astounding. Her young sister simply refuses to be around her, she is trying to go to school to learn English, and what little family (and neighbors) she has suggest, almost to the point of forbidding, that she stay away from Esther because of what others in the town may say, never mind that Esther's parents succumbed to AIDS themselves. And in an environment where she is repeatedly told what she can't or shouldn't do, while the truth about her mother is being kept from her, she decides to go against the norm and seek the truth out for herself. Manyaka's strength, frustration and vulnerability can be discerned from her role and she carries the film exceptionally well.
The other performance worth discussing is Manamela's. Bearing a striking resemblance to a young Cicely Tyson, she wants appearances to be maintained so much through the community that any sort of compromise in them would prove to be near-toxic, and as things play out in the film the community tension seems to build, and when the disease is confronted by the community, they show a predictable reaction. It is the way Mrs. Tafa deals with it, particularly in one of the last scenes of the movie, that pack the biggest emotion punch of all.
If there is a drawback to the film, it is that it relies so much on those two performances (and Mvelase's to a lesser extent) that there are some vague moments as the story unfolds. These may be because Schmitz may be more focused on the type of story he's telling and who he's telling it to, but the viewer might find themselves playing catch-up as they are watching the film. Knowing that the film was written by a Canadian, it still feels as if the film's roots are greatly authentic, and they illustrate that with the pandemic in the country, South Africa is still overcoming its own cultural biases when it comes to dealing with AIDS (a further credit to the South African Schmitz). Moreover, the difference in learning about Africa through a white Irishman's eyes and a young South African girl's eyes can certainly be different, and with Chanda's journey in the film, Life Above All is more affecting than any rock song or talk show appearance could ever be.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and uses the AVC codec, with the result being solid. First off, the South African exteriors look outstanding and take as much advantage of the Scope aspect ratio as possible. Flesh tones and the color palette of browns and greens look accurate and are not oversaturated. However the feature seems to battle with image softness from time to time. One moment you see rain beading on a window at a house, the next moment things one would expect to see in closer shots (such as facial detail) doesn't appear. It's hard to be too disappointed with the presentation, as it looks quite good as it is. Note: The images in the review are from the standard definition edition of the disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless surround track come through as more active than I was expecting. The film is mainly dialogue-driven and handles the load well, with dialogue consistently strong and in the front of the soundstage, requiring little in the way of user adjustment. But there are other moments that take advantage of the rear channels (such as a mid-movie thunderstorm) and even the low-end (such as when Esther is trying to make money at the truck stop, when trucks are starting and revving their engines). It turned out to be an excellent sonic experience.
The only extra is a making of look at the film (14:09) with interviews of the cast and crew as they talk about their thoughts on the novel and on the location shoot. Mvelase covers her friendship with Manyaka and the talk on how to lighten the mood from the subject matter is touched upon. It's topical in nature but it's nice to see here. A trailer for the film (2:07) and several other Sony films is included. The package also comes with a standard definition version of the film on a second disc.
The journey within Life Above All is poignant and powerful, and to see it told through such young and amateur eyes is a wonder to see. How it tells the story sometimes is a minor fault, but the film remains worth seeing. Technically the disc is as good and is a little light on bonus material, but seek this film out and be rewarded by the experience.