Some words are more taboo than the usual four-letter designations, particularly since the movies have made the latter commonplace. Think of these terms: death, died, cancer, AIDS. More often than not, a person has not died but "passed away" or "passed" or "is with Jesus" or "is an angel." Even worse, kids are sometimes told that their deceased father is "asleep." As for cancer, this term was verboten to a greater extent in the past than now. The term AIDS is not uttered in some afflicted households even today. Why? There is still the belief in the evil eye, even in developed countries like ours, that the mere mention of a term will conjure up Satan. Such is the case with Oliver Schmitz's film "Life, Above All," a generic title that would have improved had Allan Stratton's novel, "Chandra's Secrets," stuck in the cinematic version.

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Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for Arizona Reporter
By Harvey Karten

Grade: B+
Directed By: Oliver Schmitz
Written By: Dennis Foon, from Allan Stratton's novel, "Chandra's Secrets"
Cast: Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Lenabe, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 6/23/11
Opens: July 15, 2011

No matter. The photography is splendid, the singing gorgeous, and for those in the audience who are not fluent in Pedi, the English subtitles are clear and bold. More important, the film is anchored by a stunning debut performance by fifteen-year-old Khomotso Manyaka in the role of Chanda, a sensitive, articulate 12-year-old whose problems are caused by the people around her rather than by her own views-which are more mature than those held by just about everyone in her life. She appears in virtually every scene, an expressive young woman who may be flawed in that she cuts school too often to get ahead in her mostly poor village of Elandsdoorn, near Johannesburg, where superstition is rife, and people sick and dying with AIDS are not welcome as they bring shame on the town and fear into the populace.

Like a lot of kids here in the States who cut classes or drop out, Chanda is surrounded by problems. Her infant sister has died. Her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) is sick with AIDS, stepfather, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) is perpetually drunk and is afflicted with AIDS, her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane) is selling her body to truckers to make ends meet (so to speak), her younger siblings Iris (Mapaseka Mathebe) and Soly (Thato Kgaladi) are clueless, her richer neighbor, Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Manamela), is shrill and judgmental. Chanda's English teacher means well but is unable to do much to get his bright student to attend classes. A charlatan offers potions that he professes can help AIDS victims but Chanda cannot afford the 600 Rand that he wants (a Rand is worth about 14 American cents making the fee $84 US).

Chanda tries her best to keep people alive, her plight becoming worse after she travels north to where her mother is hiding out from the local townspeople, brings her mom back home, and is threatened, even stoned by villagers who angrily believe that the sick woman is bringing shame upon them. At no point does young Chanda despair. Despite the hostility, physical ailments and emotional upheavals that are part of her life much too soon, she believes like Anne Frank that people are really good at heart.

Director Oliver Schmitz, the child of German immigrants, was born in Cape Town, shot the gangster drama "Mapantsula" in Soweto without government permission, and evokes solid performances from the ensemble to the extent that "Liife, Above All" was South Africa's Oscar competition entry for movies that opened in 2010 and was short-listed in January as well. This is a film that inspires hope, taking a stand against superstition, and should be seen by the ignorant people who perpetuate lies and act with callous disregard for the feelings of the impaired.

Unrated. 105 minutes. © 2011 Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online.

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