People are dying of AIDS. Ashamed and frightened, sufferers keep their illness a secret. The ailment is said to be a curse, a divine punishment visited on sinners.
That sounds like America a generation ago, at the height of the U.S. HIV/AIDS crisis. But it is South Africa, circa now, as depicted in the wrenching melodrama Life, Above All. In rich countries these days, AIDS is something resembling a chronic, manageable illness, as opposed to the death sentence it used to be. In Africa and other parts of the developing world, AIDS remains a devastating plague.
It says a lot about AIDS in Africa that Life, Above All, a fine, sad film about the disease, is almost two-thirds over before anyone even mentions it by name. In the dusty town where the film takes place, the locals are in denial. They call it the bug, or they refer vaguely to sickness, or they tell lies. The stakes are high. People with AIDS are shunned, and possibly they are murdered.
Life, Above All is based on a novel by Canadian author Allan Stratton, and almost all of the dialogue is in the Sepedi dialect. The film centers on a very sympathetic performance by first-time screen actress Khomotso Manyaka. She plays Chanda, a resourceful schoolgirl who observes more than she says. Her father is dead. Her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is sick. At the beginning of the film, Chanda is shopping for a casket, because her baby sister also is dead.
In short, Chanda endures unimaginable difficulties, and what with all her family's chaos, it basically falls to her to raise her young siblings. So she rarely gets to just be a kid. A friendly boy proposes a study date, but nothing comes of it. She has done well in school, but she's falling behind.
Still, unlike many people around her, she is educated enough not to be superstitious, and she knows her mother isn't cursed. Lillian has AIDS and urgently needs help. That is what drives the plot, which is pretty simple: Will Lillian get medical care? The prospects are grim, not least because Lillian, abetted by her strong-willed neighbor (Harriet Manamela), consults quacks and magicians when what she needs is, for starters, a lab test.
Hopelessness pervades the film, especially in a subplot about Chanda's friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane). Orphaned by AIDS, Esther, barely adolescent, turns to prostitution. All of this is heartbreaking, and it makes the somewhat hopeful ending feel tacked on. It's one of a handful of clumsy moments. Still, amid so much despair, there are worse things than giving in to hope.