by Jessica Mosby
Life, Above All tells the story of 12-year-old Chanda who takes responsibility for her family after her baby sister dies and her mother falls ill. Fueled by rumors, the rural village outside Johannesburg quickly ostracizes the family suspecting that Chanda’s mother has AIDS. The mother flees the village to live out her last days in a deprivation that may shock viewers.
Manyaka’s performance is especially noteworthy as the first-time actress single-handedly carries almost every scene. During our interview, Manyaka tells me she did not realize she was auditioning for a film and was surprised to learn she had won the lead role. Taking a chance on an inexperienced young actress, director Oliver Schmitz made sure the set was a fun place so no one was emotionally weighed down by the subject matter of their performances. The product of this on-screen/off-screen contrast is an authentic performance by Manyaka that is void of any amateurish affectation.
Life, Above All is based on the fictional novel Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton. Schmitz says he chose to adapt the novel into a film because he was moved by the mother-daughter relationship. “The primary goal was to make a story on the emotional impact on this family, and the children, and the next generation.” The dialogue is all in Sepedi, a South African language that Schmitz does not know.
Despite the heavy themes, Life, Above All is moving, thought provoking, and ultimately uplifting. The AIDS epidemic in South Africa becomes a backdrop to the mother-daughter story that so attracted Schmitz to the novel. The 106-minute film has been well received by critics and audiences and was selected for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, and the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. South Africa chose the film as its official submission for the Academy Awards.
During the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival, I met Schmitz and Manyaka to discuss the film. The director/actress duo has traveled the world promoting the film.
The film is based on the book Chanda’s Secrets. How did you come to make a film based on this book?
Oliver Schmitz: The producer of the project approached me with the novel. He’d met Allan Stratton at a film festival, and the producer thought I might be interested in it as he knew my work, knew I was from South Africa, and was looking for something for us to collaborate on. I read it and I was completely moved by the mother-daughter relationship in the story. I found it very emotional and moving, and this is what inspired me and why I wanted to make this movie. It deals with very big societal issues, but that’s not what primarily interested me emotionally. It’s what happened between the mother and the daughter.
How did you go about casting the mother (played by Lerato Mvelase) and the daughter (played by Khomotso Manyaka)?
Schmitz: We started looking at professional adult actors in Johannesburg with a very good casting agent. Once we decided we wanted to shoot in the area Khomotso is from – Elandsdoorn – we did a big casting session and the casting agent saw 200 kids initially, who all came from various schools. Then she showed me the best of those – about eight kids – and Khomotso was one of them. And then we had call backs, then I went out to the area and we did more casting. We took the actress along who plays the mother in the story, and when the two of them got together we could feel that they liked each other, they had a bond, and something sparked between the two of them. It was really beautiful.
It is a very difficult decision to make working with a youngster who has never acted before. To make the leap of faith and say “that’s the one.” But immediately I could see there was something very special developing out of that situation. We had many more meetings and rehearsals before making a final decision.
Khomotso, since this is your first film, what made you audition?
Khomotso Manyaka: I didn’t actually know about auditions. I was at my local choir and this lady came and saw me. She [then] told me I must come to auditions. She took me to the auditions, but she didn’t tell me what the audition was for. When I arrived [at the audition] they said I must say a speech. After that they gave me a script and I had to learn a few lines…as time went on, they told me I was going to be in a movie and I was going to be the main character. That was very surprising!
What did you think when you first read the script?
Manyaka: I just did what I was told to do. I just rehearsed the script with my mom. Maybe I’ll be Chanda and my mom would be Esther, and we’ll do the scene. My mom will sometimes tell me what to do to be a good character in that scene. As I was doing it, I liked it!
What do you think now when you see the final film?
Manyaka: It’s very good. It’s emotional. It’s a well done job, and people are loving it. And I am loving it too. I think we did a very good job!
What were the challenges, as a director, of working with so many first time actors who also happened to be very young?
Schmitz: Once they showed the talent and potential, the challenge was to, on one hand, focus them and try to explain the situation they find themselves in in the story. And, on the other hand, to make it all seem effortless, fun, and something that is not a burden – a place where you can have fun and enjoy yourself every day. We had a lot of jokes, a lot of light entertainment on the side just to make a good experience, not something where you feel there is something heavy on your shoulders every day as you’re working.
Khomotso, what was your experience on set? When you weren’t filming dramatic scenes was it a lot of fun?
Manyaka: For me, it was a big experience. I never knew that in acting you have to put a lot of effort in it. Always stay focused. You have to give that thing that they need in that particular scene or character. When we shot the movie that is when I understood acting very well.
How has the film been received at home in South Africa and abroad?
Schmitz: I think generally it has been received incredibly well in South Africa. It screened at the Durban Film Festival where it won Best South African Film and Best Leading Actress. On the South African Film and Television Awards we got nominated in 11 categories and won seven. Again, amongst other things, including Best Film, Best Actress, and Best Direction – and it was put forward for the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, officially put forward by South Africa. So reactions have been incredibly positive.
Sometimes, from a government point a view, a bit defensive - which I can understand based on the whole fraught and difficult history of government politics towards AIDS in South Africa in the last 15 years. But generally we’ve had an incredible amount of support. In Khomotso’s hometown, there was a premiere which was so full people had to be turned away. Not everybody could get in. It’s the first time a movie has been made in this language in South Africa as well.
What language is the movie filmed in? And did you know that language before you started filming?
Schmitz: The language is called Sepedi. And no, I knew of it, but I did not know the language. And I can’t claim to know it now, except I have vocabulary of maybe 20 words in that language. Having lived with that language for a few months, it’s a beautiful language. It’s a very soft-spoken. That says a lot about the culture – a kind of respectfulness and gentleness, which is very beautiful. I am very glad to have made this decision to shoot in this language.
Was it difficult to shoot in a language that you did not know?
Schmitz: I am hearing impaired so audio is not my strength. I look at faces. I concentrate a lot on what transports itself visually and by other means. It is the first time I have worked purely in another language. It’s a lot about trust as well.
Did you feel that approaching the subject of HIV-positive South Africans – and very extreme prejudice wherein people are driven from their homes, it goes beyond just gossip – in a narrative format was a more accessible way to approach the topic? As opposed to a documentary?
Schmitz: My primary reason for doing the story was the dramatic power that I saw in the novel, and not because I was looking for a movie to do around the issue of AIDS. Because the story captured so emotionally and from a different perspective, through the eyes of a young person, the whole dilemma around AIDS, I thought it was a very powerful story. But I was not looking for a story to campaign around the AIDS issue. I think what is powerful about the story for me is that the issues creep up on you as the story goes along. It’s not polemical. It’s not a debate about who did what and who’s to blame for the situation the family finds itself in on a political level. At the end of the day, if the film moves you, you’re forced to ask yourself your questions about why.
About the Author:
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.