Life Above All

Community Reality in Johannesburg


15 July 2011| No Comments on Life Above All     by Sean Chavel


Contained characters I cared about but a story I didn’t want to know. Life Above All tells you many things about the ragged communities of Johannesburg and makes it a bleak sight. No doubt can be made that this Oliver Schmitz film is educational in parameters and that his lead actress Khomotso Manyaka is enduringly emotive as the 12-year old protagonist Chandra, but the film is unremitting in despair until it allows a stumbling and over-affected redemptive ending. It’s based on a 2004 novel by Allan Stratton that was published first in North America. Perhaps poignancy of the book was lost and replaced by agonizing pity.

We care about Chandra, whom observes the death of her newly born sister and the cruel rumors that circulate amongst her neighbors. Her friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) is also a character we care about, and it hurts to watch her turn to truck stop prostitution at age 12, inexorably surviving a beating by a couple of men. These are girls that tried to stick to school and books but were pulled away because of family turmoil. When Chandra’s mother disappears a discomforting search is made. Chandra’s father is a wash-out.

Neighbors begin to persecute once they suspect disease infection in Chandra’s family. Without remorse the neighbors are ready to throw stones, even at Chandra who is just a caretaker of Esther. They throw a live human being into a groundwater well out of xenophobic anger. Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela) is the one adult that Chandra can turn to, and while confrontationally spiteful for much of the film, becomes unconvincingly elemental in protecting Chandra against mob violence when the story demands it. This leads more unconvincingly into a hymn chorus that is supposed to symbolize the strength of brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s not this I minded, however. It’s the manipulation to stack the deck against Chandra to extremes of hopelessness. It’s a downer and it has its share of shapeless intervals, but at least I saw a real portrait of the rural homes of South Africa.

Northern Sotho with English subtitles.

106 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “A Dry White Season” (1989); “In My Country” (2004); “The Constant Gardener” (2005); “Catch a Fire” (2006).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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