Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.” Anthony Brandt
Two films at the recently concluded Durban International Film Festival epitomized this statement by Brandt.
“Mammoth” and “Life, Above All” were poignant reminders of the familial relationships which shape us. It was difficult to keep a dry eye in both movies, yet the pathos is not soppily sentimental. The realities are portrayed with no polishes.
Oliver Schmitz’s “Life, Above All” — which received overwhelmingly raving reviews when it premiered last May in Cannes — won the South African Best Feature Film award at DIFF. Based on Allan Stratton’s evocative novel, “Chanda’s Secrets,” this emotional narrative reveals a young girl’s loyalty and fearless courage in trying to keep her family together. Untrained local actress Kgomotso Manyake was discovered through auditions in a rural area, and delivers a powerful debut performance in here.
When Chanda’s baby sister, who’s just a few months old, dies of a mysterious illness, rumors spread through her rural village. Her drunkard stepfather disappears, and when he returns, he shouts that his wife’s milk poisoned the baby.
An estimated one in five South African adults is infected with HIV/Aids, yet as “Life, Above All” testifies, a positive status remains a shameful secret, especially in rural areas. Superstitious beliefs and prejudice results in people with AIDS being treated as outcasts.
Twelve-year-old Chanda is forced to take responsibility for her family, as her mother falls progressively sicker. The community, most of whom are devout Christians, begins to shun them.
Chanda tries, and fails, to get her mother to acknowledge she has AIDS. Their neighbor and friend Mrs Tafa perpetuates the hidden truth. Her mother is told by a sangoma (traditional healer) to travel to her home town to exorcize the demons inside her. After a fight with Mrs Tafa, Chanda visits her mother. There she discovers her mother has been left to die on the outskirts of the village, with other AIDS sufferers.
“Life, Above All” is an illustration of how strength and courage of conviction can overcome adversity. It’s a tribute to child-headed households of AIDS orphans whom complacent South Africans now accept as a norm.
“Mammoth” centers on a yuppie couple Leo (Gael García Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams) who live in a fancy apartment in New York.
“Mammoth” is an insightful, albeit somewhat conventional look at our globalized and material lives by Scandinavian director Lukas Moodysson. The film centers on a yuppie couple Leo (Gael García Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams) who live in a fancy apartment in New York. She’s a trauma surgeon working nightshifts; he’s a dot-com entrepreneur who’s made millions through a videogame website. Their seven-year-old daughter is mostly looked after by the Filipino nanny Gloria, who has left her two sons and family to earn in dollars so she can build a home and give her children a better future.
In an ironic scene, she buys a basketball in America, made in the Philippines.
Set in three countries; America, Thailand and Philippines, the film is a call for evaluation on what ultimately matters. Nothing is tied up; it’s a seamless screenshot projection into psyches which leaves one discomfited.
When Leo and his business partner travel to Thailand to sign a business deal, Leo feels distanced from the opulent world he inhabits. He longs for simplicity, checks out of his five-star hotel, and checks in to a beach house.
Meanwhile, Ellen feels ravaged by her job, maternally jealous of Gloria, and distanced from their daughter, who prefers spending time with the nanny. Despite their careers, wealth and material possessions, they feel empty.
In typical male fashion, Leo seeks to fill the void by sleeping with a Thai prostitute he strikes up a meaningful friendship with. Pitying her poverty, he gives her a pen gifted to him, which at $3,000, is the most expensive pen in the world. The pen and a Rolex watch fetch her just $25 at a pawn shop.
It is Gloria’s sons’ plaintive need for their mother, and hers for them, which repetitively builds on a viewer’s sympathy, climaxing in an outpouring of grief. In an attempt to find work so his mother can come home, her eldest son is molested and beaten by a white male tourist. It is the weak and poor who are taken cruel advantage of by the wealthy and powerful; it is the children who suffer most.
“Mammoth” is about the small details which make life so worthwhile, and the infinite yearning of humankind for love and companionship.