Life, Above All [Blu-ray]
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In the rural outskirts of Johannesburg, where fear seams to actuate every aspect of public life, its common for families to crumble under the weight of poverty or social ostracization. With a wide variety of diseases floating about, and little available health care, it's easy to see how things can go down hill fast. Life, Above All, Oliver Schmitz's adaptation of the award winning novel “Chanda's Secrets” by Allan Stratton, finds one poor family in just this situation with one pillar of strength among it all, an incredible 12 year old girl named Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka). Her bleak reality is portrayed with an authentic vision of despair, and hope of a brighter future through education and perseverance.
Opening with the news of the death of Chanda's baby sister, we are instantly introduced to a world of perpetual misgivings that usually end in the worst possible way. Chanda's honorable father passed years ago, leaving her with an always hammered step-dad, and two younger half siblings who have little regard for her. Her mother, now sunken into a deep depression, can't seem to find the strength to get out of bed. Chanda's only friend is a pre-teen prostitute with no parents who has become a neighborhood pariah, supporting herself by working the stream of traveling truckers that stop in their village. When Chanda's parent's become deathly ill, the neighbors start to turn against them, leaving only the excuse of religion, the promise of redemption, or the courage of a child to save their family and redeem their image.
Set in a small dust whipped town in South Africa, the dilapidated homes our leads inhibit are as dreary as their futures look. Schmitz has taken a cold hard look at the realities of poverty and disease with this film. His environments are authentic depictions of their everyday life. AIDS is a looming specter, haunting its nearby residents. Education is stifled thanks to the seriousness of hunger and homelessness. Communities are fragile contraptions, ready to breakdown on the whim of a whisper. Honor is important, but to Chanda, family is paramount. Up against immense odds, her strength and commitment are truly inspiring.
The film's utterly depressing subject matter is supported via cinematography by Bernhard Jasper that feels very real, while remaining astoundingly gorgeous throughout. A combo of dirty villages and wide open landscapes alternate with distinct natural flair and intuitive movement. The images are often lined with in-scene choral music from the halls of a church. If the images themselves don't bring you to Africa, these musical numbers surely will. Despite occasional feelings of anti-religious sentiment, it's in these reverent chants that the smallest glimmer of hope is found.
As expected, Sony has put quite an a/v presentation together for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release of the film. Camera movement is quite fluid, yet it manages to find extreme focus on faces, making for a very crisp visual experience. Deep colors and skin tones look natural, while earthy textures highlight how detailed the visuals can be. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is in the film's original Northern Sotho language, and has supplemental subtitles in place. Depth in the soundscape can be found in the surrounds, and highlighted in the aforementioned choral numbers. The disc packs a 15 minute 'Making of' featurette, but it packs a lot of solid info into that short time span. It also includes a theatrical trailer for the film. Both discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case.
With an incredible young cast, most of which have never acted before, and cinematography that draws you in with its strikingly beautiful imagery, Life, Above All is a letter of appreciation for those who keep their head up high, despite the gloom and doom that may surround them. It's it tough watch, but a valuable one that thoroughly deserves the shower of praise it received through its festival run and beyond.
--Jordan M. Smith
Release Date: December 6, 2011