In the 1980s, the South African government considered HIV/AIDS a “gay disease,” and so they ignored it.
In the 1990s, they saw it as a gigantic conspiracy, with political and racial motivations, and so they ignored it.
Then, in the rush of new government initiatives designed for a productive future, they relegated the task of dealing with the disease to the various provincial governments, whose administrators were incapable of, or unwilling to, accept the responsibility. And so they ignored it.
By 2009, South Africa had the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, with one in three women aged 25-29 and one in four men aged 30-34 carrying the disease. In that year alone, some 12 percent of the population of 48 million was infected, and more than 310,000 died of it.
This, then, is the background for a new film from South Africa called “Life, Above All.” Set in the African township of Elandsdoorn, in the province of Mpumalanga, some 120 miles northeast of Johannesburg, where the HIV rate among 2-year-olds is 15.4 percent, the film explores the impact of the disease on a single family. The family consists of a harried mother, her 12-year-old daughter, Chanda, by her first husband, three younger children by her alcoholic, womanizing, ne’er-do-well second husband, and a brand new infant who dies, supposedly of “influenza,” as the film opens.
The township is a huge surprise. A million years ago, when I lived in South Africa, the townships were squalid affairs, full of sagging shacks made of cardboard or mud with corrugated tin roofs and contaminated streams of sludge and sewage running freely through the alleyways. Elandsdoorn, however, is a new, middle-class settlement of stucco houses with porches and more than one room.
But, like small towns everywhere, it has its quota of nosy neighbors. And keeping your reputation intact among the gossiping hordes becomes of vital importance.
So when Chanda’s mother becomes ill she does not acknowledge her illness or the fact that it was transmitted by her philandering second husband. Instead, she abandons her family to the care of her 12-year-old daughter and goes away to die alone.
Grim as all this sounds, there is much beauty, and even redemption, in this lovely, reality-based film. And, above all, there is the luminous Khomotso Manyaka who, never having acted before, lights up the screen as Chanda and carries the film to its dramatic and anticipated ending. This spirited girl has a face and a presence that will haunt you forever.
“Life, Above All,” produced by Sony Pictures Classics, was an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prix Un Certain Regard, an award presented to young talent and innovative and audacious works. It was also the official South African entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards, and was entered in the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the 2011 Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, among others.
“Life, Above All” opened at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and at the Royal Theatre in Los Angeles on July 15 and will open in Encino, Irvine, and Pasadena on July 22.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.