Film Review: Life, Above All

Life, Above All (dir. Oliver Schmitz, 105 min., 2010, Drama) — http://www.sonyclassics.com/lifeaboveall/

Set in a small town in South Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Life, Above All is a rich and vibrant film that grapples with the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS and the effects of prejudice on individuals and communities. Realistically gritty and yet beautifully shot, the film offers a glimpse into the frenzy of fear that the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought on a number of communities and the portrait of one girl’s courage in the face of that fear.

Though focused on important human rights issues, Life, Above All is much more than just an “issue film.” At the heart of the work stands the story of a family—a mother and daughter, in particular—and a young girl’s struggle to stand up to the pressures of society. The film opens with a death, which begins to sow the seeds of doubt in twelve-year-old Chanda’s mind about the health of her family, especially her mother, who is already showing signs of illness. Unfortunately, the same suspicions grow among their neighbors as well, and whether the family’s troubles are regarded as physical or spiritual, they are slowly stigmatized and ostracized.

Yet, what ultimately drives the film has little to do with disease. The open-hearted and open-minded Chanda cares for her friends and family above all, regardless of their health status or any other rumors that circulate about them, founded or not. She is a girl who sees beyond what others see and is brave enough to stand up for others. In the end, the film is about a struggle against cultural norms and attitudes and one girl’s inspiring ability and willingness to stand against a crowd in the name of love.

While the film excels in filling out these narrative brushstrokes, drawing the viewer into the pain and intensity of a daughter’s love for her mother and her fight against the prejudices of her neighbors, this type of vivid storytelling would not be possible without the incredible performances of the two leading child actresses—Khomotso Manyaka, who carries the film in the role of Chanda, and Keaobaka Makanyane, who plays Chanda’s best friend Esther, a girl whom everyone has given up on. Both put on stunning, beautifully delivered performances with subtle emotion and captivating interactions with each other and the other cast members. In fact, their performances were so stunning that I was surprised to learn during the question-and-answer session with director Oliver Schmitz that neither had been professionally trained. Schmitz said Manyaka’s only previous stage work was singing in the choir; now, according to the director, both girls are enrolled at a school in which they can (and intend to) specialize in the performing arts.

The film is further driven by sophisticated and moving performances by the leading adult actresses Lerato Mvelase, who plays Chanda’s mother, Lillian, and Harriet Lenabe, who takes on the complicated role of Mrs. Tafa, Lillian’s friend and neighbor who attempts to protect Lillian’s family but must also grapple her own prejudices and past.

As the final film of New York’s 2011 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, Life, Above All served as the capstone for two weeks’ worth of human-rights-based film screenings. Notably, it is the only existing film in Sepedi, a local language in South Africa, and was an official selection for the Cannes Film Festival. The film is based on an award-winning novel by Alan Stratton (no relation) called Chanda’s Secrets.

Though a fictional account, Life, Above All stands as a telling testament to the stigma and shame surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic (both historically and contemporarily) as well as the power of individuals and communities to stand up to fear, ignorance, prejudice, and injustice. Chanda becomes an inspiration to us all and an icon of the transformative power of love. If only we all could be so brave.

(According to Schmitz, the film is set to be released in cities throughout the U.S. starting this summer. For more information, please visit: http://www.sonyclassics.com/lifeaboveall/)

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Film Review: The Price of Sex

The Price of Sex (dir. Mimi Chakarova, 72 min., 2010, Documentary) — http://www.priceofsex.org

What is the cost of one woman’s life? Her freedom?

What is the cost of hunger, of communities lacking jobs, of children lacking discernible futures?

As an increasingly globalized world, what price are we paying for the continued suffering caused by human trafficking?

These are just a few of the questions that raced through my mind as I watched Mimi Chakarova’s documentary The Price of Sex, which premiered in New York last month at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. The filmmaker’s work consisted of seven years of investigating sex trafficking and the sex industry, particularly focusing on women from Eastern Europe. In the film, she allows viewers a glimpse into the lives of several former sexually exploited women and adds to this with her own investigative journalism, traveling to the countries and cities in which their exploitation occurred. The film ranges from focusing on individuals’ circumstances to understanding the broader socio-cultural issues that create situations in which trafficking can occur, examining the women’s hometowns, the ways they were coerced or forced into the sex industry, and the men (and women) who both force women into the sex industry and solicit them.

My reactions to the film ranged from a deep sorrow for these women to a rage at both what they had to experience and at the systems that allow human trafficking to continue. I was moved by all the women’s stories, which were told in their own voices and with all their faces shown, and further moved by their courage in openly sharing their experiences. The violence and trauma they suffered is shocking, and the stigma and minimal support that met them when they returned to their hometowns and countries was minimal. However, I’m heartened by their abilities and bravery to work with Chakarova to bring their stories to light. As for human trafficking and the sex industry itself, Chakarova does well to explore the socio-economic and socio-cultural factors surrounding these problems, focusing not only on governments that try (or fails) to prevent trafficking and sexual slavery but also on other factors—economics, patriarchy, education, and more—providing an analysis that allows for both the depth and breadth of the issue.

Chakarova won the film festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking, and the film stands as a testament to her daring work, in which, often undercover or through hard-to-get interviews with johns or hotel owners, she attempted to reveal the underbelly of the so-called beast that is the sex industry. She speaks candidly—in the film itself, and also spoke before and after the screening—of her connection with the women she follows in the film. While she was adamant to remind our audience that human trafficking and sexual exploitation occur everywhere—New York City included—Chakarova admits that her childhood in Bulgaria causes her to see the plight that many Eastern European women face in a different light. As she notes, after the fall of Communism, it was like there were two paths: she and her family went on one path that led them to the U.S. and greater opportunity; the women in these film took another. Yet, Chakarova notes, the women in this film could’ve been her playmates as a child, and had she taken this other path, it would have left her struggling with the poverty that now encompasses her whole hometown and she could’ve found herself in the same situations that these women had to face.

Thus, with this sense of immense empathy, Chakarova’s journey towards telling these women’s stories began, and this film is a testament to that ongoing journey. In this way, Chakarova’s personal lens provides a stunning and intimate glimpse into the lives of these exploited women and gives the audience a similar feeling that “this could be me, too.”

For more information on the film, Chakarova’s work, and what you can do to help, please visit www.priceofsex.org.