Originally published August 19, 2011 at 9:12 AM | Page modified August 19, 2011 at 11:16 AM

Movie review

'Life, Above All' — measured tale of AIDS in South Africa

In the film "Life, Above All," a mix of nonprofessional and professional actors drives home a powerful, carefully paced story about a 12-year-old South African girl facing destructive rumors and superstitions surrounding her AIDS-afflicted mother. The movie stars Khomotso Manyaka and was directed by Oliver Schmitz. It is playing at the Varsity, in Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Life, Above All,' with Khomotso Manyaka, Lerato Mvelase, Keaobaka Makanyane, Tinah Mnumzana, Harriet Manamela and directed by Oliver Schmitz. Written by Dennis Foon, based on a novel by Allan Stratton. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and some sexual content. Varsity.

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The South African drama "Life, Above All" is more than half over before anyone on screen actually says what is so painfully obvious: AIDS has taken a toll on the life of the film's 12-year-old heroine, Chanda (newcomer Khomotso Manyaka).

Not that Chanda herself is ill. But the film opens with scenes of the resilient, resourceful girl shouldering grim responsibility for the burial of her infant sister, whose death seems mysterious until we meet her debilitated mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase). Wasted, with bruiselike areas on her skin, Lillian clearly has symptoms of the disease. The impact of AIDS on Chanda's family has been enormous and continues to grow, resulting in betrayals, severed relationships and Chanda's interrupted education.

Yet none of that is as cruel or destructive as the rumors, superstitions and politely sublimated rage swirling around these unfortunate characters in their rural township. As with everything else in "Life, Above All," we discover in a measured way the full extent of fear and resentment about AIDS in this African community. There is superficial goodwill among neighbors, but visible panic and bigotry in the margins of daily life. Chanda's fiendishly bitter aunt (Tinah Mnumzana) blames Lillian for contracting HIV from her wayward husband.

It's Chanda who bravely confronts the apocalyptic terror and shame just below a society's surface when she undertakes a journey late in this topical tale. Even before that, she has to contend with the irrationality of the film's most fascinating character, a neighbor named Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), whose various acts of kindness are offset by a near-hysterical need to link Lillian's troubles to demons, poor nutrition — anything but the truth.

There is less in-your-face grit in Cape Town-born director Oliver Schmitz's vision for this film than there is a careful pacing of somber revelations. Its universal message about hatred born of ignorance builds on itself that way — an honest reflection, not a platitude.

Tom Keogh:

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