In 1988, Oliver Schmitz made ‘Mapantsula’, one of the great Apartheid-era South African films, and with this adaptation of the 2004 novel ‘Chanda’s Secrets’, he unflinchingly explores life in modern Johannesburg for one girl whose family life in an impoverished township is in freefall. Chanda (the terrific Khomotso Manyaka) is just 12 years old and yet shoulders endless responsibilities as her mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), is sick and her stepfather, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo), is a drunk. Illness claims the life of her baby sister, and elsewhere there are tensions between Chanda and her friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), another child discovering the realities of the adult world all too soon.
‘Life, Above All’ is an inside-out portrait of a particular world, whose brutal, dark and unforgiving qualities are reflected in the film’s scrubbed-away colours and shadowy interiors. There’s an anger at the film’s heart towards not only the hardships suffered by Chanda but also the reaction of her community, which proves itself to be curtain-twitching, gossipy and in denial in the face of its own destruction.