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LIFE, ABOVE ALL (2011) (***1/2)

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This is not the first AIDS message film to come out of Africa and it probably won't be that last. It touches on many of the issues that the Oscar nominated African film YESTERDAY tackled. But what makes this film different is its perspective. The innocent children of the pandemic are at the center. It's tale of struggle and sacrifice works on the audience slowly reaching a power crescendo.

In the first scene, tweenaged Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) is buying a coffin for her dead infant sister. Her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is too grief stricken to leave the house. Her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is passed out drunk at a bar with another woman. He has taken all the family's money so Chandra has to go recover it in order to pay for the funeral. Lillian's friend Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe, HOTEL RWANDA) reminds Chanda that the baby died of influenza so no one will talk. No one shall dare say what they think it really was.

AIDS is a stigma that most families cannot bare. If word gets out, the community will drive them out, because they are afraid on a superstitious level. When Lillian gets sick, a medicine woman is called who throws out incense and snakes and says the woman must find her missing part left behind in her birthplace. So on this advice Lillian leaves her children to fend for themselves. But sadly, the spiritual healer is no better than the "doctor" who has an herbal cure for which the plaques on the wall show he is the #1 salesman of for months in a row.

Chanda looks at all this quackery with skepticism greater than any adult she knows. She is not afraid to challenge those in authority, but sadly too many disregard her as just a child. In a world where public opinion seems more important than reality, Chandra would rather risk it all to do what is right. Look at her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), a young girl who lives in abject poverty whose parents are no longer in the picture. The young girl sadly needs to sell herself to truckers just to survive.

Manyaka gives a strong performance as a young girl thrust into a terrible position by circumstance. Her bond with her mother is stronger than social norms or the opinions of adults. Her mother was a outcast because she married her father for love, rejecting an arranged marriage. When her husband died, she remarried poorly, making her status in her family's eyes even worse. Her mother tells her that her baby's death is what she gets for the life she has lead. And these are the people she goes back to when she is sick? We fear this cannot turn out well.

Chandra's journey to find her mother is truly touching. She has given up so much, but for those she loves she doesn't hesitate to give more. Chandra's strength and defiance is inspiring to those around her and the audience. She is the hope of an Africa ruled by education not fear. The same song opens and closes the film. In the beginning it's a dirge. In the end, it's a chorus.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks