Something monstrous fills a community with fear in South African drama Life, Above All.

And within this troubled neighbourhood, the film’s central character – 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) – attempts to gain an education while also minding her younger half-siblings… and caring for her ailing mother (Lerato Mvelase)… and sourcing a coffin for her baby sister… and offering love and support to a troubled best friend (Keaobaka Makanyane).

Worse still, around her, the locals whisper and gossip about her sickly mum. Like kids using irrational fear-fuelled fantasy to make sense of something they don’t understand, these adults have created a crazy society where organised religion and witchcraft live side by side.

But, despite these destructive adult influences, Chanda approaches her concerns with maturity. Her mum is sick and her orphaned best mate Esther is finding dangerously desperate ways to make ends meet. So she seeks advice from a medical professional – advice about Aids. You see, this is the disease she suspects they’ve both contracted – a disease that nobody around her dares to name.

And she’s told that things can be done to treat the disease. And this is the most devastating message of this film. Because, while Aids doesn’t have to be a death sentence in this South African township as medical teams and supplies are readily available, Aids does still kill in this place because fear and social prejudice rule.

Shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011, Life, Above All – based on the book by Allan Stratton – sheds light on Africa’s Aids pandemic through Chanda’s moving story. Neither condescending nor overly sentimental, director Oliver Schmitz‘s film offers a window into a world where shame, fear and igorance are the barriers that stand in the way of progress.

It is young actress Khomotso Manyaka who totally carries this film though. In her brilliant debut performance as Chanda, Manyaka is spellbinding – combining tender childlike moments characteristic of her age with a breathtakingly mature brave stoicism in the face of what her cruel life throws at her.

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Life, Above All is released on DVD on Monday, 23rd January.

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