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Life, Above All (Geliebtes Leben) - film review
by Birgit Schrumpf

The 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) chooses a coffin for her infant sister absentmindedly listening to the undertaker’s kind words: “We’ll wrap her in a nice, soft material and she will look really pretty”. Mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is too sick and weak to be of much help. People in the village are whispering that she too has the mysterious illness of the devil of which her baby had died. The township community turns openly against the family calling the illness a disgrace and a retribution for their sins. Their neighbour, nosy Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) calls a witch doctor to get rid of the demons. It is only now that Chanda realizes that her mother must have AIDS and wants her to undergo tests. Nobody is supposed to call the illness by name and any evidence is denied. Distraught Lillian follows the advice of the witch doctor to leave home and to return to her village. Chanda feels confused, helpless and angry. Mrs. Tafa bullies her around, her siblings are unruly and her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) – an orphan – has to drop out of school turning to child prostitution in order to survive. Chanda is shocked but after she finds her beaten up on the street she takes her friend home. The two of them form a bond against the ignorant and prejudiced community. Overcoming her fears, Chanda seeks medical support and succeeds in bringing her beloved mother back home. 

Dennis Foon and Oliver Schmitz adapted Allan Stratton’s bestselling novel Chanda’s Secret for the screen. The film impresses with an almost documentary approach and the vivid camera work of Bernhard Jasper. No bombastic music is used but the score by Ali N. Askin is used with restraint, with the exception of the wonderful and lively African church choir. The entire filming took place in the small town of Elandsdoorn where native Sepedi is spoken, one of the nine official native languages of South Africa. Most of the actors were locally cast, including first-time actress Khomotso Manyaka who received the Best Actress Award at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. The film by director Oliver Schmitz (Mapantsula, Hijack Stories, Doctor’s Diary) was awarded Best South African Feature Film and is nominated for a best-foreign-language Oscar®.

Despite the touching and dramatic events, this is not a tear-jerker. The film about a young girl growing up in to-day’s South Africa caught between traditional beliefs and an educated view offers more than the mother-daughter story. After the hype of the Soccer World Cup, it offers a glimpse of the daily realities on an entertaining level. Hopefully, it might even initiate help to deal openly with some of the taboos plaguing the nation. 

During the Cannes Film Festival 2010 the film premiered in the section “Un Certain Regard” receiving the Francois Chalias Prize.