There is a very weirdly specific trend in foreign films this year. There have been a number of stories of women searching for truth in the past to provide some hope towards the future in a land full of extreme conflict. This was the case for “Incendies”, “Sarah’s Key”, and “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. It’s a compelling structure to give a fuller history of a place, but it requires for a lot of plates to spin at once.
In “Life, Above All” Chanda is a young girl living in a smaller village in South Africa. She doesn’t have to go as far back into the past as the other heroines do. Their past is mixed in with their dire present. Memories of their worst times linger around them. The world is tinted so orange it makes your mouth dry up. Immediately her story is filled with tragedy as her baby sister dies. The whole town mourns for her, but it is only Chanda who demands something more.
Director Oliver Schmitz creates a devastating landscape as Chanda goes through her own “Winter’s Bone” like quest. Khomotso Manyaka is so mature in her lead performance that she is able to carry the movie with only a space amount of dialog. She is able to accomplish so much, but there is still something lacking. In all of the other films I’ve mentioned, the answers to their questions are shocking and heartbreaking. This answer is similar, but it doesn’t play fair with the audience.
Without giving anything away, the movie purposefully holds back a very key thing. Half of my audience figured out the central conflict early on, but there were quite a lot like me who needed to wait until its conclusion. It wasn’t about ignorance of anyone in the audience because the film is very deliberate to make sure the characters never speak of the secret. On one level, it shows how much the people are damaged by this where they are to the point of silence. The other is a manipulation by the director for the greatest emotional impact.
Since the reveal is necessary to appreciate most of the way the characters interact, a connection can’t be made until we are able to fully understand them. Even though Manyaka’s vulnerability makes her character one of the most sympathetic in recent years, her journey is clouded.
I first saw this film at Ebertfest a few months ago. Preparing for this review, I watched most of the key scenes again now with the extra knowledge. There is still unnecessary distance, but there is a certain sorrow by the filmmaker. This situation is so devastating, this is the only way Schmitz knows how to tell the story. His methods are flawed, but it is a film worth seeing.