South Africans, Above All

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Oh man, still sobbing. South African director Oliver Schmitz and his amazing cast of actors had a Cannes auditorium moved to tears – and to a standing ovation – this morning. It was one of those special moments that makes Cannes, and film-making, so worthwhile.

A still from the movie "Life, Above All"
A still from the movie "Life, Above All"

The emotionally-charged movie was “Life, Above All”. And as I overheard one of the many exhuberant fans say to Oliver afterwards, “this wasn’t just a great film, it was an important film”. Phew. Like I said, still sobbing. And so were the actors. Tears were sliding down Harriet Manamela’s face as she left the auditorium.

It was the world premier of “Life, Above All” which is here as an Official Selection in the Un Certain Regard competition. An amazing accomplishment. But so well deserved.

At first I had thought the film was a little slow. Beautiful cinematography but just a little too gently-paced. And it’s all in Zulu. (Well, I think it is. The only words I could understand were Zulu words.) But the actors are captivating, the Zulu makes it that much more authentic (and hopefully even more accessible to its home audience) and the story lifts you up and carries you – through tears and laughter – to its final scenes. No white-skinned people. But none needed. [Update: apparently the language is actually Pedi.]

The film tackles the very real problem that South Africa has faced with the stigma surrounding Aids, but it’s a story that’s universal. About how gossip and caring what ‘other people’ say about us can destroy a community that should be working together, and can poison us more than the illness itself. The film, based on “Chanda’s Secrets” by Allan Stratton, is dedicated to the 800,000 Aids orphans in South Africa.

Before the screening began, the actors, director and South African/German producers were called up on stage and a microphone was passed down the line as each gave a short and humble message of thanks and “siyabonga”. When it came to first-time actress Khomotso Manyaka’s turn she said: “I’d like to say thank you, and I love to be here.”

By the end of the film, during the standing ovation, as people squeezed and pushed to get to the stars, it was clear that the audience was saying back: we’d like to say thank you, and we love you being here”.

Actress Khomotso Manyaka (Chanda) is congratulated by SA Minister of Arts and Culture Ms Lulu Xingwana this morning in Cannes
Actress Khomotso Manyaka (Chanda) is congratulated by SA Minister of Arts and Culture Ms Lulu Xingwana this morning in Cannes

Life Above All actresses Harriet Manamela (Auntie Tafa) and Lerato Mvelase (Lillian) after this morning's screening
Life Above All actresses Harriet Manamela (Auntie Tafa) and Lerato Mvelase (Lillian) after this morning's screening

Life Above All gets a standing ovation in Cannes.
Life Above All gets a standing ovation in Cannes.
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Jenni is the co-founder and chief editor of SAPeople.com, co-author of The Expat Confessions and co-parent of three gorgeous daughters. After graduating, she worked as a TV producer, political researcher and journalist in South Africa, before moving to London to interview movie stars for international magazines and to tackle British teen angst for London Weekend Television. She has also lived in Australia, and currently lives in France. Jenni is happiest paddle boarding on the Med or sipping rooibos in the bush in Africa. Contact jen@sapeople.com