The director of Life, Above All discusses AIDS, silence, and other weighty topics
Published: September 7, 2011
Life, Above All
Directed by Oliver Schmitz
The South African film Life, Above All is about AIDS, about poverty, about shame. But it is also about the love between a mother and her young daughter. Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), 12, lives in an impoverished town with her mother and her younger siblings. The movie opens as she is making arrangements for the funeral of her infant sister, whose death is shrouded in mystery. Soon it becomes apparent that her mother is sick as well, and an undercurrent of hatred and fear in the otherwise placid township begins to make itself known. Chanda’s mother’s illness is variously described as possession by an evil spirit or as retribution for past sins; her infant sister’s death is attributed to influenza, and a neighbor friend claims her son was killed by robbers. It is Chanda who confronts the fact of AIDS, which is wending its silent, deadly way through the township. In doing so, she achieves a sort of redemption for herself, her family, and her village, even as medications remain in short supply and the virus continues to devastate.
Gorgeous African choral singing and painterly cinematography give Life, Above All a luminescent quality. It is moving without being maudlin, and its lessons—on the corrosive nature of shame and the odd strength that comes with acknowledging even a harsh reality—ring true. City Paper recently spoke with director Oliver Schmitz by phone.
City Paper: Your work in the past has tended to focus on apartheid and the aftermath. I’m wondering what drew you to make a film about AIDS.
Oliver Schmitz: I didn’t actually go out there and say, I need to make a film about AIDS. It kind of snuck up on me because I was given the book [Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton] to read by a producer. . . . It was an incredibly emotional read and I thought, Wow, I’d love to make a film about this. Of course AIDS plays a very important role in this story. . . . What grabbed me was the central character, and to try to tell the story through an emerging young adult’s perspective.
CP: Khomotso Manyaka, the young girl who plays Chanda, is really powerful. What’s her story? How did you find her?
OS: Well, once I decided I wanted to shoot in this location and once it was clear I’d have to start looking broadly—there’s no child actors in that area—we did a huge casting in the schools. The casting agent looked at about 200 people and she showed me the best. And [Manyaka] was one of them. She only came to the casting because a friend of hers said she should come. And she didn’t even really have any specific interest, which is incredible. . . . Her mother is an AIDS counselor in a clinic run by a Dutch doctor in that area, so she knows about the issue. . . . She has an incredible quiet resilience, which is so beautiful and carries her.
CP: How much did you know about AIDS among the poor in South Africa before making the film?
OS: It was familiar to me in the sense that the denial was familiar. I’ve had good friends who passed away. And I can think of two cases where two friends passed away who were in complete denial, never mentioned the word “AIDS” once, not once, right to the moment of actually lying on their deathbeds, when it was painfully obvious. . . . I’ve had the feeling that the silence around the disease is to some degree more destructive than the disease itself potentially is.
CP: Yes, the movie is as much about shame and keeping up appearances as it is about the disease.
OS: I think there has been such a stigma around it, as something almost like a plague—even if you mention the word or if somebody in your family has it. There’s a social contagion to the disease. It really shows to what an extent South Africans have felt helpless in dealing with the disease in the last 10, 15 years of some very bad policy decisions along the way, where there was no medicine made available. Where one government said that AZT is toxic and should not be taken. Where they claim that HIV and AIDS, it cannot be proved that they are medically linked. It created an incredible amount of confusion, so this is part of the damage I think.
CP: Is the stigma in South Africa still so strong that people are shunned or beaten or even killed for having the disease, as happens in the movie?
OS: I don’t know if it’s still like that . . . but it has happened, unfortunately. I sincerely hope that it can’t happen again. But the fact that there are so many orphans whose parents have died of HIV-related illnesses and where the families do not want to be associated with those children speaks to me that that taboo and stigma are still very much alive.
CP: One thing I noticed is that the word “AIDS” isn’t said aloud until pretty late in the film. Why did you make that choice?
OS: Everybody knows what’s at issue but nobody speaks about it. . . . I deliberately used it as that unspoken word, which [Chanda] has to actually utter before things will change. And when she stops being so scared of that word and can actually say it, then she sees the power to start changing things.
CP: Do you have any upcoming projects?
OS: I’m doing a movie in South Africa early next year based on a book called Shepherds and Butchers about a young man at the end of apartheid who gets put on death row as a warder at the age of 17 without any training, and takes part in 170 executions, and has a psychotic break and goes on a killing spree. It’s about the court case and an exposure of what happened on death row and what happened to these young men who had to carry out orders to kill other human beings, what effect it had on them.
CP: You really take on the light subjects.
OS: Well, in between I make comedies in Germany.
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