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Life, Above All (2010)

Chanda has a secret

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 108 minutes

UK Certificate: 12


This is the first in a new series here on Movie Gazette – the Film of the Book. Or sometimes it will be the Book of the Film. In any case, it will be two media reviewed and we’re kicking off with Life, Above All, originally released as a book called Chanda’s secrets, though now re-released with new cover artwork and the same title as the film.

In the UK this title is published by Chickenhouse, which has it aimed at the teen market. I’d say it ought to be at the top end of the market – this is a no holds barred book about the AIDS epidemic in South Africa and features death, rape, possible murder, beatings – it’s not a light hearted look at the topic. The central character is 16 and has not had an easy life at all – we start by meeting her as her youngest sister dies, and we learn gradually that that isn’t the only death she’s had to deal with in her short life. Her father and eldest brother died in a diamond mine accident, and life has only got harder since.

I can imagine people using words like powerful, gritty, thought provoking to describe this book and they would be accurate. I would also, however, be tempted to throw in the occasional depressing – there is very little that shines through to lighten the mood. And part of the problem is how authentic and believable the story is – it’s utterly plausible rather than melodramatic and that makes it even more harrowing. Although it’s worth holding out til the end, as there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel in the final pages.

The film, released on DVD 23rd January, is absolutely beautiful. Atmospheric, wonderful cinematography that again shows the utter plausibility of the tragedy of life touched by AIDS. Several of the issues in the book are of necessity skipped over, but what is included is there in totality. So you do see a teenage girl beaten and bloodied, and there’s a brief glimpse of a corpse too. It’s a foreign language film, subtitled, which makes it harder work than your average teen might want to take on, but I think that watching it first may well make the book more attractive as you want to fill in more of the story line.

Worthwhile, worthy, haunting, harrowing. Not a film for younger watchers, not a book for younger readers. But I can imagine it becoming a set text for GCSE level, which wouldn’t do it a great deal of good, though it certainly could stand up to that type of analysis and study.

I’m aware that what I’ve written doesn’t sound all that inviting. But the quality of the storytelling in both book and film does shine through and make it worth the emotional investment – and the subject material of necessity is going to be challenging. Just don’t watch/ read at a moment when you are already feeling down.

It's Got: Tragedy and trauma by the bucketload, though plenty of dignity to go with it.

It Needs: A pack of tissues and a stout heart.

DVD Extras The making of and Cast & Crew Interview - haven't actually seen these though.


Worthwhile, worthy, haunting, harrowing – a film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.