Dirty Secrets: Life, Above All

Dirty Secrets: Life, Above All

Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Release date: May 27th, 2011
Certificate (UK): 12A
Running time: 105 minutes

Original language: Sotho
Country of origin: South Africa, Germany

Director: Oliver Schmitz

Writers: Dennis Foon (screenplay), Allan Stratton (novel)

Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane and Harriet Lenabe

In the 1872 dystopian novel Erewhon, Samuel Butler satirises a side-effect of Darwinism by having his “perfected” society hospitalising criminality and criminalising illness. Of course, you might think, if someone can choose to commit a crime they can choose not to in the future, but no one can resolve to cure himself from disease; and what is more destructive, in evolutionary terms, than a gene-pool contaminated with hereditary weak health?

Well, Adolf, a thousand year Reich for a start. But despite the universal rejection of eugenics, an insidious disgust and suspicion about illness continues to exist.

Life, Above All

Of no disease is this perhaps more true than AIDS. Giving a powerful account of the taboo, gossip and opprobrium associated with the virus in South Africa, Life, Above All, marries a conscientious modern parable about community with the coming-of-age story of a courageous young woman.

Chandra’s little sister is dead. Her step-father is a drunken truant who makes a mollifying appearance at the funeral only to magnify his cruelty by deserting them, pockets stuffed with their meagre savings, the following morning.

Incapacitated with what at first appears to be grief, Chandra’s mother is unable to support the young family and, in the absence of a father, the burden of household and parental responsibility falls to the precocious twelve year-old.

Life, Above All

But where her parents are unable or unwilling to provide for the family, the local community rallies to help them. From the jovial grocer who donates potatoes to the queue of well-wishers contributing liberally to a funeral kitty, this poor South African township appears to be a paragon of munificent cooperation. But the outward show of fellowship disguises a society riven by AIDS and its attendant stigma.

Whispering neighbours and rumours of rumours carry Chandra towards a terrible conclusion. But when the righteous naivety of childhood is matched by education, intelligence and bravery- well, the status quo had better run. Chandra defiantly confronts the irrationality and moral chaos of her elders and, by polemical extension, of many more beyond these fictive few.

Native director Oliver Schmitz steers an immaculate course through an intricate plot, and succeeds in powerfully conveying the deafening forcefulness of euphemism and silence. Indeed no one says the “A” word until well into the second hour of the film.

Life, Above All

What is perhaps most interesting about the film is its attention to the superstitions that fester in the secrecy surrounding the disease. Voodoo commingles with puritanical Christianity and medical ignorance to produce a monstrous, lurid morality in which AIDS is regarded as a confusion of demonic possession and divine punishment for promiscuous wickedness.

Paranoical “hygiene” (e.g. “Burn the bed-sheets!”), which has more in common with ritual than medicine, is employed to prevent its transmission. Unscrupulous doctors push overpriced, ineffective drugs, and exorcism is considered a legitimate treatment.

Life, Above All

But the alternative (such as it is) to these spurious remedies is shown to be just as disastrous. Frightened villagers prefer just to ostracise the afflicted.

The consequences are heartbreakingly inevitable. The end of the film gives us a few statistics: I don’t remember them exactly, but the charity Avert estimates there are 1.9 million AIDS orphans in South Africa alone and 150,000 children living in so-called “child headed” families.

But a closing dedication to “all the Chandra’s of the world” is about more than helpless pity. She, perhaps like many more of her generation, is cast in the mould of hope and change. If Chandra’s education and moral convictions can overcome superstitious prejudice then others young people may be able to do the same.

Life, Above All

Those of you reluctant to subject yourselves to a gruelling feature about AIDS outside of Comic Relief will be reassured to hear that, though it has the tempo of a long journey in the sub-Saharan heat, the film maintains strong narrative and sympathetic interest throughout.

The cinematography is precise, crystalline and avoids the kind of African clichés (sweeping plains, abject poverty) that might encourage us to sit back and switch on empathic autopilot. The score is unmemorable, which in certain films is a definite compliment. The performance by 15 year-old newcomer Khomotso Manyaka is consolidated magnificently after a faltering start, and on the whole the rest of the cast do a good job in somewhat less than propitious circumstances for characterisation.

Adapted from Chandra’s Secrets, a “teen-fiction” novel by Allan Stratton, what is gained by the clarity of its story-telling is to an extent squandered by caricature and over-simplification. But, given its context and style, these shortcomings don’t really weaken the impact of the film. And if the farfetched conclusion suffers from some misplaced sentimentalism, well, few could argue there is anything out-of-place about its heart, which- Above All- seems to be what matters in Life.

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