SOUTH AFRICA: Life, Above All (2010)

Why do they hate you?

by Bailey Hobbs

An HIV/AIDS epidemic has raged throughout southern and eastern Africa in the last 30 years, decimating the population and resulting in millions of deaths. South Africa in particular faces one of the most challenging fights with this disease across the entire world, with 7.5 million people infected as of 2019, including almost 20% of the entire adult population (Avert). The situation was exacerbated by a government under former president Thabo Mbeki, who spread misinformation about the relationship between HIV and AIDS and touted the drug Virodene as the miracle cure, claims with no basis in science (Benatar). HIV/AIDS continues to be a divisive issue in many South African communities. In a recent survey of South Africans, nearly 80% said they witnessed or were the victim of HIV/AIDS related discrimination (Visser, M J, et al). Some of these attitudes stem from religious or moral judgements about those with the disease, including a small group but noticeable group who attribute it to witchcraft or curses.

Oliver Schmitz’s film Life Above All, explores social stigmas in South Africa through the lens of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In it, a young girl named Chanda struggles to keep her family together after her mother inadvertently passes HIV to Chanda’s newborn sister who dies as a result, a situation which, tragically, is not uncommon in South Africa. Her mother is afraid of bringing shame to the family and refuses to get tested, but rumors still circulate around the community as her condition worsens. AIDS is not something mentioned or discussed for the majority of the movie, and “its absence forms a fearful echo chamber — reflecting South Africans’ own insistence, until recent years, of denying the reality of AIDS” (Ebert).

This essay focuses on two pivotal scenes- the opening and closing moments of the film- in which the audience hears two variations of the same prayer. In the first, Chanda’s mother weeps for her lost child, singing alone as she is forced to grieve by herself, fearing the social repercussions of people finding out about the true nature of her newborn’s death. When we hear this prayer again, the community comes together to pray for her recovery, singing a much more energetic and brighter version of the prayer.

The opening prayer is played with scenes of divide and denial, showing the deep fractures embedded within the town and South African community at large over AIDS. The song has a bittersweet quality, the bitterness reflecting all of the anguish that has been internalized due to social stigma, the sweetness, an idealistic hope for a more united South African community. The closing prayer on the other hand communicates a hopeful togetherness, as the community begins to accept the reality of AIDS.

The translation of the prayer goes “We come from suffering, and we confessed our sins, and we repented, the gates are opening, amen.” People face hardships in their lives, people make mistakes, people are inherently imperfect, and yet gates of Heaven are equally open to everyone. This contrasts with the question halfway through the essay when Chanda asks her mother “Why do they hate you?” While directed at her mother, the question is really about stigma and prejudice and hatred itself. Why do we spend so much time judging and tearing other people apart when we are all the same in the eyes of God? Through these questions, Life, Above All communicates the truth about AIDS in South Africa and around the world: countless deaths have been caused by the unnecessary demonizing of AIDS victims and misconceptions about the disease. The final moments of the essay turns these questions outward on the viewer as Chanda opens the doors to stare out onto her community, metaphorically staring out at the South African community and world to await their response. Will we pray for these unjustly villainized groups or contribute to the divide that has made this epidemic so devastating?

Works Cited

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