Life, Above All  

by director Oliver Schmitz

AIDS has ravaged South Africa in the last twenty years. I have seen friends die slow, painful deaths and in two cases, witnessed that they could not acknowledge or speak the name of the disease that was eating them away. Fear and fear of stigma are central to the denial that let AIDS spiral out of control in South Africa. Although this has affected me most deeply on a personal level, it was not until I read Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton that I felt compelled to make a movie that dealt with this. The young character at the center of the story moved me so deeply that the project became the focus of my attention for the next three years.

I did not want to make an "issue" film or preach—the drama of the individual account was always for me in the foreground and in the forefront of discussions between screenwriter Dennis Foon and myself. In the movie, stigma is dealt with in the most poignant way, through the eyes of one child who does not understand the world of the adults around her. Central to the film is Chanda. The film stands or falls on the basis of her performance. It is a story told unrelentingly from her perspective. There is no distraction, no relief, a hard task in a way…but I knew that this was the way it had to be.

I shot the film in a small town and using non-professional actors as child leads. We saw about two hundred kids (cast by the amazing casting agent Moonyeenn Lee), kids who had absolutely no experience in drama, let alone film. What some of them did have was an amazing willingness, openness and lots of raw talent. I almost got cold feet, thinking the youngster who would have to carry this would be there 36 days, everyday in front of the camera, but Khomotso Manyaka who plays Chanda and Keobaka Makanyane who plays her friend Esther, convinced me otherwise.

Khomotso Manyaka, then a 12-year-old, had no ambition to act when I met her and came by chance to the auditions. Unaware of her talent, yet quietly fearless, she tackled with me the task of creating her character, the young girl who stands up to her whole community. Everything I gave to her in preparation, she gave back in her performance. She was phenomenal. In fact her presence formed the movie for me. I wanted to shoot in a small town with small town people. Ordered, conservative, traditional. A kind of African version of a white picket fence neighbourhood. The pace of their lives, slow by our city comparisons, affecting the rhythm and tenor of the film. Khomotso had all this in her and supported by a wonderful, professional adult cast, transmitted it to the movie.

The film and Khomotso’s performance give a face to hundreds of thousands of children orphaned and often left to their own devices in the wake of AIDS in South Africa. It might not be family entertainment fare, but it is, by virtue of her quiet strength and her ability to bring change, an uplifting and hopeful movie and one that one cannot forget. I am exceedingly proud of it and my actors…the film received a 10-minute standing ovation in Cannes and made it onto the shortlist of contenders for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. It has touched hearts and I hope it touches many more.

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