Life, Above All, a German-South African production, is a movie (recently released on DVD) about suffering, shame, community and redemption. The “hero” is a 12 year old girl, Chanda, who shows us what it means to be truly “pro-life” in the midst of suffering and shame.
The movie opens with Chanda singing a song with the refrain “Open the Gates” – a reference to the gates of heaven and a yearning perhaps for some kind of salvation. We learn that her youngest sister has just died. As the movie proceeds we find out that her little sister has most likely died of “the bug” – a euphemism for AIDS as does her mother Lillian. And in this rural South African context such a condition brings condemnation and shame, justified by both religious (pseudo-Christian) and spiritual (animist) belief. Lillian believes that her suffering has been brought on because she married against her parents’ advice and outside her own village. She has therefore brought a curse on her family.
Chanda’s village is represented by a seemingly well-meaning neighbour – Mrs. Tafa, whose own son has died, apparently killed by a gang. Mrs. Tafa’s acts of kindness, however, are ultimately motivated by her desire for Lillian to leave the village. This she eventually achieves with the help of a witch-doctor who tells Lillian she needs to return to her family and her home village so as to reverse the curse. And so Lillian, obviously ill and in much pain, leaves her other remaining younger children under the care of Chanda.
Meanwhile Chanda has befriended Esther, another 12 year old, whose own parents have died of AIDS. As a result Esther has been abandoned by her extended family, living in isolation in a small corrugated iron hut. In addition she has dropped out of school and has turned to prostitution. One evening, however, Esther turns up at Chanda’s – having being severely beaten by one her “clients”. Chanda takes Esther in, not afraid of what her community, and Mrs Tafa, might say… and also despite the rupture of their friendship.
Chanda refuses to give up on Esther or her own mother. And so she sets off on her own to bring her back. She eventually finds her Aunt and her own Grandmother who tell Chanda that her mother’s condition is the result of judgment. But, Chanda challenges them – Why is AIDS judgement and not her Aunt’s club foot? And who has the right to make statements about judgement? Chanda eventually finds Lillian alone in the ruins of an old village, close to death. “I am lost” her mother tells her. But now Chanda has found her and, in perhaps the most touching scene of the movie, moistens her mother’s parched lips with some water.
Chanda manages to bring her dying mother home and, in doing so, meets the anger of the community who, reminiscent of the “woman caught in adultery story,” threaten to stone her. But it is here that perhaps the greatest redemption of the movie takes place. As Chanda returns with her dying mother, Mrs. Tafa remembers her own son, who was not killed by a gang, but rather killed by AIDS. In turning her back on Lillian she has actually turned her back on her son. In this realisation she comes out her house and stands with Chanda before the crowd with stones in their hands. Here is life in the midst of shame and suffering and condemnation. And as the movie comes to end, we here the same song, “Open the gates”. This time though, it is not Chanda who is singing… it is the crowd, transformed by the actions of this 12 year old girl and her once condemning neighbour.
The more I ponder Chanda, this brave 12 year old South African girl, the more I ponder Jesus – the one who did not come to condemn, but rather, the one who came to seek and to save the lost; the one who embraced sinners and whores; the one who travels to the far country in order to seek the lost; the one who enters into our shame and suffering; the one who bathes our wounds and gives living water to the thirsty the one who stands with us; the one who has come to share his life with is; the one who brings the open gates of heaven to us.
It is not surprising that when screened at the Cannes Film Festival the audience gave it a 10 minute standing ovation. Here is the recognition of the truth of the human condition, and the sense that this is the kind of life we need to experience – in the midst of shame, suffering and condemnation.