Met with a ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago, Life, Above All was South Africa's official submission for the "Best Foreign Language" Oscar. It has since become picked up by Sony Pictures Classics (the same folks behind the record-breaking Midnight in Paris box office push), and was touted by Roger Ebert at his film festival "Ebertfest." The film tells the story of a young girl who is forced to carry the weight of her family when her mother runs away after rumors of AIDS in the community spread. Khomotoso Manyaka plays Chanda, the foundation that a whole community needs to understanding the destructive power of gossip, especially as it is hid amongst our own secrets.
I sat down with director Oliver Schmitz and his teenage actress Manyaka to discuss the film and its roots in restoring neo-realism cinema to South Africa.
Life, Above All is now playing in select theaters.
What was the first day of shooting like compared to the last?
Khomotso Manyaka: It was fun. [The last day] was sad. Because everyone was leaving.
How much do you think you put of yourself into the character?
Manyaka: I think I put a lot of effort into it.
I mean, characteristics.
Manyaka: I have three brothers. I am the firstborn.
Oliver, I feel like this movie contains elements of Italian neo-realism, as you were shooting with an unknown and shooting on location. Was there much of an influence of that movement with this film?
Oliver Schmitz: I think there’s an influence in the movies that I’ve done, even my first movie, which I did in 1987, Mapantsula. I remember seeing Bicycle Thieves many years ago. But not just neo-realism, other things have influenced me as well. When I first started seeing films in the late 70’s, when I was still in school, it was the first international film festival in Cape Town. It was a real eye-opener, because everything we saw in cinemas was completely censored, so if there was anything to do with politics, religion, or sex, that did not conform to very strict apartheid Calvinist views, they’d be cut out completely. So you’d have these dramatic jumps [in the story] and you wouldn’t know where you were. You’d have to rethink everything, and find your way forward. Including James Bond film.
Schmitz: Yeah, there was one movie where he falls in love with a black CIA agent. And I saw this movie again about five years ago, and I thought, “Okay, so that’s what the movie’s about!” And what happened is that in the late 70’s, the films of Fassbender and Herzog, and other things like Lindsay Anderson’s film If ... was about an uprising at a public school. And with that, I thought, “Wow. This is something I’ve never seen. This is something that I want to do.” It was really subversive.
Schmitz: It’s a mixture. The realism comes from the fact that realism was banished from South African life in the sense of that you could not show, portray or put it out there in the public eye. It was all artifice, it had to fit the theory, it had to fit the apartheid paradigm. So that’s how I entered into the world, of looking closely to the society. It became important to me to look at that society.
Do you feel this film would have looked different if you didn’t have roots in South Africa?
Schmitz: Probably. What I had been thinking about is that, as an outsider to society, I think as a white South African you’re still an outsider, to some degree, of the way you grew up. But as a complete outsider, you look for things that are the most interesting, and the most foreign. “What is that, and what that about?”, and the danger of entering into a world that could be portrayed as something exotic. But what interested me was not something foreign, but what is the same. And the community [in the film] is a very African experience, but it’s a very African version of suburbia – white picket fences, of people who are generally happy and have home owners who are proud of who they are, go to church, and meddle in each other’s business. That’s what interested me – the underlying social structure of what dynamics and tensions are universal to all of us. So beyond the universality and the realism, which is important to me, beyond the specifics and the realism, it’s about what joins us all together. And not to make it seem like this is something that could only be in South Africa, or Africa, and that it’s different from the rest of the human experience.
[Khomotso has started to chew on her bottle cap]
Schmitz: In San Francisco, she was tired, so she went under the table. I thought she was fooling around, but she went to sleep. And it was the most important interview of the day, with the big San Francisco newspaper.
Well, this is your first tour. How does it feel?
Manyaka: It’s nice. It’s very nice. [Laughs] Because … I enjoy it a lot, and it’s great. It’s enjoyable. I enjoy traveling. I love traveling.
Did you give her a lot of pointers about how to give interviews?
Schmitz: Not at all, actually. She amazed me at Cannes. We were on Cannes television, which was a live television channel. She started talking about AIDS, and that it was important to speak out about it, and I was like, “Okay, wow.”
[To Manyaka:] What has been the most challenging thing for you out of this entire experience?
Schmitz: Putting up with me. Manyaka: Nothing. Everything’s going well.
Oliver, what was most important for you when you were editing this movie?
I think the difficulty about making a film like this, because it’s from Chanda’s perspective, she’s in almost every scene of the film, so there’s very little room for relief, or diversion, or distraction. It becomes very linear in that way. That was the main thing in editing, was to keep that tension. That despite there’s only one thread in the film, the unrelenting tension and how it builds up towards the end. Again, it’s tragic and it’s sad, but I also didn’t want to tell the story where it was hopeless. The window of hope is very important for the story.
Did the general story stay the same from the script to shooting to the editing process? Some people say that the movie is truly written in the editing room.
Schmitz: I believe that. I used to be an editor myself, for a long time. But it’s written on paper, then it’s written again in front of the camera, and these wonderful performances that came out. It was kind of too long, so there were some decisions to make in the editing process. Because I went for the rhythm of a small town life, that everything has its time and its pacing, and is slower than big city life. It was important to break that, and not be subservient to that rhythm.
There is a heavy theme of gossip in this story. As a person who has lived for a significant amount of time in both Europe and Africa, are there different social mores in different continents? Is the community in the movie universal to you?
I think that the issues, and the way that people respond under this kind of pressure, is kind of universal. But the emotional temperature is different. South Africans are very warm, very open, very emotional people. Sometimes they can escalate as people who have a kind of temperament, which can explode, or do show itself in different ways to Northern Europeans. I suppose if you look sixty years ago at Germany, it would prove differently. The tolerance of violence in South Africa is higher than a place where there hasn’t been as many violent reactions. The scene at the end, where you see the crowd standing around, it reminded me of reactions against political informants or collaborators.
I was curious – we talked about South Africa censoring films. How well do you think the country is doing with catching up on its lost cinematic realism?
Schmitz: There’s quite a lot happening. At the end of the day, even a coherent film industry is built up of individual projects. There’s a lot of smaller projects happening. And then things like District 9 get made, and it’s a collaboration between South African creativity and international creativity. This is a new development. I think it’s great.
What has your festival experience been like? Have you been speaking to audiences, or doing Q&As?
Manyaka: It’s been normal. Because although it can be different, it’s not weird. It’s nice. You meet people from different places, and different people from your places. And it’s very nice. Getting that reaction from people, who have positive reactions, it’s very nice. And you enjoy it too.
What celebrities have you met?
Manyaka: Jennifer Hudson.
What has this film festival experience been like for you, Oliver?
Schmitz: Well, Cannes was fantastic. I had been there with other movies, but we had an unprecedented reaction. We had a standing ovation of ten minutes. Which doesn’t happen every day. Especially with the cynical audience of Cannes, it does not happen everyday. People were crying. And Roger Ebert was there, and he did this. And he gave us a fantastic review which played a role in us being here, I think Sony Pictures Classics picked it up after having dinner with Roger and Mary Corliss. The Q&A’s were great. San Francisco was good. People were generally interested. We’ve had a good run. Lots of prizes.
QUICK QUESTIONS Favorite Fruit? Manyaka: I eat everything. My favorite fruit is lychee. Schmitz: Papaya.
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Manyaka: A lot of things. I had fruits, and then I had cereal. Corn flakes. Schmitz: I had an all-bran breakfast. With raisins.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours, and then go back to being yourself? Manyaka: A boy. I don’t know. I just want to know how it is like to be a boy. Oliver: I’d like to be her. See what it’s like to be her, in front of the camera.
Your favorite summer movie or blockbuster? Manyaka: My favorite movie for now is Twilight: New Moon and Eclipse. Are you on Team Edward or Jacob? Manyaka: Jacob. I have Jacob’s t-shirts, I have Jacob’s watch. I have a bag. And I have a pin. And I have a hat. I have a lot of things of Jacob. Oliver: I liked Social Network and Winter’s Bone. I often go to see films my daughter wants to watch, and Rango was very funny. Manyaka: I want to see Rango.