Before seeing the deeply moving South African-made work LIFE, ABOVE ALL, the only exposure to the films of director Oliver Schmitz was a short he did for the PARIS JE T'AIME anthology. His latest work concerns a young girl who care for and protects her AIDS-stricken mother from those in their village who would cast her out and let her die alone. Tears will be shed and eyes will be opened when you see this powerful film, which played at last year's Cannes Film Festival, was South Africa's official Oscar contender, and actually made the short list for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.
In April, Roger Ebert selected LIFE, ABOVE ALL (which he caught at Cannes) to play as part of his 13th Annual Film Festival, and I caught up with Schmitz and his star, newcomer Khomotso Manyaka, who plays Chanda, the daughter, just before they continued their journey halfway around the globe to Ebert's festival in Champaign, Ill. They were both charming and added a great deal of context to the film and the issues and prejudice regarding HIV/AIDS in Africa. This is an honest, stark movie that treats its subject seriously and with compassion. Please enjoy my talk Oliver Schmitz and Khomotso Manyaka, whose first language is not English, so forgive her shorter answers…
Capone: I feel like in the last few years there has been, at least from the perspective of an American who gets to see films coming from Africa and especially South Africa, a surge in the number of films we have gotten over here, and I would assume that’s because there is a thriving film community in South Africa. Is that the case? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Oliver Schmitz: Well, I think there’s a surge. I’ve been living the last 10 years in Germany doing work there, but going back every year I definitely feel that, despite difficult funding situations in South Africa, there’s quite a lot happening. This movie was predominantly funded with German film funds, so it’s a slightly different situation, but based on my reputation in Germany and in South Africa, it got funded. There was a South African participation as well of 25 percent, but there is a lot happening in South Africa, there definitely is and against all odds, because the national television does not get much money, but people are getting their projects together.
Capone: In terms of a supply of actors and crew, that seems to be pretty prevalent there as well.
OS: Absolutely. I’ve always been an advocate of South African actors, as well. There is some fantastic talent, and the crews are great. They get to do a lot of movies.
Capone: So let’s talk about this story a bit. What was your first exposure to this book, and I’m also curious about the title change and whose idea that was.
OS: Well, the producer brought the book to me. We talked about doing something together, and he knew I came from South Africa and he met the writer of the novel I think in Canada. [Author] Allan Stratton lives in Toronto, and he said, “Read this. You might like this.” I was incredibly moved by this young girl who fights against all odds and especially for her mother and for the love of her mother. I thought, “Wow, this is something different.” There have been a lot of movies with AIDS as a background, as a part of the story, but through the eyes of a young person, the way this was told, I though, “This is a great story, and I really want to do this.”
Capone: And in terms of not just a young person, but a young person who is given this burden, that really is what it is, of protecting family members…
OS: It’s an incredible burden and it speaks about a lot of young people in South Africa who have to take on the role of mother or keeping the family together at an age where they shouldn’t have to do this.
Capone: Is this happening a lot? I don’t really know what the statistics are.
OS: It is happening. I think traditionally, girls are more tied into that where they have to take some responsibility in the home, but we did some research on our first trip out there, and we met some orphans in the area where we were shooting whose parents had died from AIDS-related illnesses. In one case, it was a 14-year-old girl who had been looking after two siblings--a younger brother and sister--for four years already, and they were alone in the house doing this and a neighbor would bring food sometimes, a relative would come once a month with a very tiny amount of food, and that was it. They were left to their own devices. At some stage while we were doing the production, I looked up statistics, and there are between 800,000 and 1 million AIDS orphans in South Africa.
Capone: Just in South Africa?
OS: That’s a huge amount of kids who have to somehow fight their way through, with or without help.
Capone: Tell me who made the decision to change the title from the book?
OS: Oh yeah, the title. CHANDA’S SECRETS was always a working title for us, because I was never completely happy with it as a film title, because the secrets are not hers, they're the community’s secrets around her. Before Cannes, when it was clear that we were in selection, we were talking about titles for the French release as well, and we were throwing names and alternatives around, and that’s how we came up with LIFE, ABOVE ALL, which was going to be the French title of the film. They reneged and changed it back to CHANDA’S SECRETS at the end of the day. [Laughs]
Capone: When it played at Cannes, it was CHANDA’S SECRETS?
OS: No, it was LIFE, ABOVE ALL. And it even sounds nicer in French, but at the end of the day the French decided to go back to the book title [for the film's official release].
Capone: So let’s talk about the search for your lead actress here. I had read in the notes that a talent agent spotted her. Did they tell you what it was about you that they liked?
Khomotso Manyaka: Well, they weren’t talking to me.
OS: Did Moonyeenn [Lee, casting director] say anything to you?
KM: No, when we were doing the auditions, it was just “Okay, we'll give her the script at the end of they day.” They didn’t tell me anything. Only Marietta, the one who took me to the auditions, she said she loved my voice, so I said “Okay,” and then she said, “Let’s go to the auditions.” Then we went there, and no one told me anything until I met the director. It was fun. I didn’t know anything, and time passed until the production came, and all of those people then went to my mom, and they told her everything, then she told me.
Capone: When you finally saw the character that you were going to be playing and all of the things that she goes through--they're very serious and very sad--were you concerned about handling that kind of emotional material at all?
KM: Nothing bothered me. I wasn’t even worried. I said, “I’ll just do this job.” I was enjoying what I was doing, so it was kind of fun.
KM: Yeah, I just said, “Okay, I’ll just give it a shot.”
Capone: Did you try to keep things light in between these very heavy moments?
OS: Definitely. I’ve never met anybody more Zen than Khomotso in my whole life.
Capone: Did he explain to you what Zen means?
OS: It’s when you go with the flow and it’s all part of the experience, and you’ve got no problem. You go with the flow.
Capone: Nothing bothers you.
OS: So absolutely, because it’s an incredibly heavy story and because there’s so many kids on set, it was important for me just to create an atmosphere that they could feel they are having fun. In front of the camera, it’s concentration. When the camera is not rolling, fool around, play with apps on the iPhone, make jokes, eat ice cream, whatever. And we all had a great time. When the writer came on set, he was amazed at first why everybody was laughing.
Capone: I’m sure. Amongst the sadder moments there are also those scenes where the community is sort of turning against these people with AIDS. Is there a thread of outrage in your film as well as just sort of the sadness and hopefulness? I felt an anger at those people, and I assume that was intentional on your part.
OS: Absolutely. You know the question is “How much potential for aggression do you understand if it doesn’t actually out itself and show itself?” In the book, the scene with the neighbors at the end gets to a point where everybody is standing around, and somebody lifts a stone and that’s it; it doesn’t go further than that, and that’s how we shot it the first time around. Because we had two different shooting periods, because two of the actors had to at first lose weight and then they put on weight for their roles.
I could look at this and think about it and I thought, “To understand what could happen, one actually has to push it one step further to show really what could happen and what is hiding under the surface there.” What you are dealing with is an incredible fear of contagion, which is not rational in that sense any more. It’s a fear of a social breakdown. It’s a fear of being infected by association. And because everybody is being feeding into the secret, it just made it worse and worse. So it was important for me to show the potential of this threat that is looming there.
Capone: And this isn’t a poverty-stricken area. These are people living in nice homes and wearing nice clothes. There's that party scene that looks pretty well stocked.
OS: Exactly. The aim was not to show all the woes of Africa, not at all. What I wanted to do was an African version of white picket fences, that it’s a suburb where everybody is kind of okay and proud of their homes and proud of who they are and have the same values, and they all go to the same church and they all know each other’s business. That’s the kind of place that I wanted to show.
Capone: You mentioned that fear of spread by association, it’s not even about contact. It’s just about being in the same community with someone who has AIDS. Why has education and acceptance been so slow to progress? Not that it wasn’t a slow progress here, too.
OS: That’s the thing, it’s not just an African issue, but I think there’s a public face and a private face to the debate. The public face is that there’s been a lot of AIDS education and a lot of debate around the issue, and there’s nobody in South Africa who doesn’t know about the issue. The private face is the fear of stigma, which is different from area to area. But when I look at these kids, the stigma is still there, because the extended families do not take them in. They don’t want to be part of the issue. They don’t want to be a part of the problem as it seems.
The area where we shot where Khomotso comes from, there’s a clinic where her mother works that does a lot of very good with AIDS treatment and education, and, yes, the clinic does take care of these orphans as well with outreach programs. But a lot of them live alone. Fourteen year olds looking after younger brothers and sisters without any adults around. It raises serious questions that, yes there is still stigma; it is still a problem.
Capone: Where you grew up, did you know children that had to take care of sick parents?
KM: No, I didn’t.
Capone: So was this really your first exposure to this issue?
KM: Yeah, it is.
Capone:How did learning about that change you?
KM: Well, there were some things that I didn’t realize, like children taking care of their siblings. So I never thought there would be something like that in our area, because in our area ,we help each other. So I didn’t know that there are some neighbors who are still scared of talking about HIV and AIDS and showing people that, “We can do this. We can beat this HIV and AIDS thing.” So when the production came, the director told me that there was a young child who was taking care of her siblings, I was surprised because I didn’t think there could be something like that.
Capone: So it was completely new to you.
Capone: That must have been pretty shocking. Not too far from where you were though it sounds like it happens a lot. Do you remember, in some of the more emotional scenes where you have to cry or get angry, what did you have to bring up inside of you to make yourself get that upset?
KM: I had to think about a funeral. That’s the easiest.
Capone: Is that a memory?
KM: Yeah, just a memory and thinking about the funeral. Thinking about something that is very painful that happened to me that makes you cry, yeah.
Capone: Well, it was very convincing.
OS: She cried, without any help, she cried. In one scene, where she’s sitting alone in the kitchen thinking about her mother, she did it. Not everybody can do it.
Capone: Did you know she could do that when you hired her?
OS: No I didn’t. I was amazed you know. As a director, you're thinking, “Can she do that again?”
Capone: What were some of the more challenging scenes, either technically or emotionally, to shoot.
OS: I think challenging emotionally is, her friend in the story, the young actress who played that who was fantastic, but she’s really on the borderline of young where I wondered, “Is she too young for the role that she’s playing?” I found that very hard to make that decision, and then I think she did it incredibly, but I was worried “Can she do this? Can she play this role?” That was one of the things.
Capone: It’s difficult to watch her a lot of times, especially after she gets beaten up.
OS: Exactly. Otherwise, just a normal logistical things for me, just emotionally they all clicked incredibly well. The mother-daughter relationship with the neighbor, I think incredible things happened between them,. Otherwise, it’s just a technical problems of shooting in an extremely hot environment.
Capone: What about shooting in a dialect that you weren’t familiar with?
OS: You know, I have a hearing problem, so for me audio is not my big strength. [laughs]
OS: I had a script in English and in Sepedi, the name of the language, and I had an on-set coach. The neighbor was the on-set coach and the dialogue coach and expert as well. Otherwise, it’s a gut feeling and a situation of trust for me. So I found it a very beautiful language, a very respectful, gentle language in a lot of ways, which I think fit the character. The decision was made so that she’s comfortable with her acting as a first-time actress. I think it says a lot about the culture she comes from, so I think that was important, and it was the first time a movie has been shot in this language, so the people around there are very proud about that.
Capone: What about you? Do you remember what the most difficult scene for you to shoot was?
Capone: Because it was all easy?
KM: Yep. I was enjoying everything that I was doing.
Capone: What about the first day? Were you nervous on the first day?
KM: I was never nervous. I don’t know why, but I was never nervous. I just arrived in the morning. I was really early, remember?
KM: Yeah, the driver picked me up very early, and we thought we were late. Then I arrived and I ate and I found my new caravan, and it had a TV and a DVD, so it was very nice.
Capone: Maybe if you knew how many people were going to end up seeing the film, it might have made you more nervous. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience at Cannes?
KM: Well the first thing I’ve experienced is that movies are important in our lives, because they bring those good messages. So what I experienced in Cannes was that lots of people do love movies, and if you're about to get famous, you are going to do a lot of interviews. I experience interviews, because each and every day I had to do interviews like over and over again. I had to take pictures. So yeah, I experienced fun.
OS: I have a question now. Is there anything that makes you nervous?
KM: No… Yes! (Laughs)
Capone: What makes you nervous?
OS: I know what makes her nervous, cows. She runs screaming when she sees a cow.
KM: Now you’ve exposed me.
Capone: You mentioned before you had been working for many years in Germany, very successful in TV especially. Had you been looking for something to get you back to South Africa to do a story set there?
OS: It’s important to me. I had a few South African projects which… You end up in development hell sometimes. I spent five years on one, and it didn’t happen, but sometimes things happen very quickly. This project, between idea and shooting, was a year or not even one and a half years, so it had the right kind of flow and developed very quickly. With Cannes, I'd been in festival before. I have a special relationship, and it’s important for me to be there, but I was very nervous as well, because the audiences are very critical. It doesn’t matter who you are. Tom Hanks can be sitting in the front and if they don’t like it they will shout and tell you why they don’t like it. It was the most phenomenal response. We had a 10-minute standing ovation, and these are audiences who are always rushing off to the next movie. That was special, and a lot of people were crying. This was incredible.
KM: I was crying too, for the first time.
OS: Yeah, she was crying.
Capone: Why were you crying?
KM: I don’t know, it was emotional.
Capone: Because of the movie or because of the reaction to the movie?
KM: Both. I’ve never cried for a movie before, even though it can be very emotional, but when I watched my movie it was, “Wow, I’ve done that. Nice.”
Capone: Was that the first time you had seen it?
KM: Yes, it was the first time I had seen it. It was amazing.
OS: And then Roger Ebert came up and the did this [gives the thumbs up sign].
Capone: Tell me about getting asked to be a part of Roger Ebert’s festival.
OS: This came via Sony Pictures Classics who is distributing the film, but he wrote a great review after Cannes. It’s quoted on the poster, a little piece of it. I didn’t know that he actually spent time in South Africa long ago, so he has a connection to South Africa, I think. I’m looking forward to it. I think he’s an amazing man and I’m very happy that we are going to his festival.
Capone: I’ve been a couple of times. I’m not going this year, partly because I had to be here to do this interview, since it started last night. But it is one of the most receptive audiences you are ever going to watch a movie with, so you might cry again.
OS: [laughs] Okay.
Capone: Telling the story from the child’s perspective, some of the scenes take on a sense of a horror film in a lot of ways. It’s very scary at times. Why was it important to make sure this was told from her perspective exclusively?
OS: Her perspective was the perspective of the film, and this is very hard, because there is hardly a scene without her, so it’s very unrelenting on that level. What we decided to do is use the home environment as something that is not only a place of safety, but it becomes a kind of prison as well from the community.
Capone: You're reading my notes.
OS: And a lot of the shots are framed with her through doorways, through windows, very much as if they are beleaguered by the outside world. So the home becomes more and more a place where the walls close in, so yes it does have a sense, in some ways, of elements visually or atmospherically that one might have in a horror movie, but even though it’s an incredibly sad movie, there’s something affirming about the way the character deals with life as well. It does leave your window of optimism.
Capone: It absolutely does; it takes a while to get there. It’s a hard road. Has the film played in South Africa yet?
OS: It has, yes.
Capone: What was the reaction?
OS: We had an incredible reaction. Last year, it was on a festival called The Durban International Film Festival, where it won Best South African Film and Best Leading Actress. This year at the South African Film And Television awards, there were 11 nominations, seven awards, including Best Leading Actress. So I think all of the other actresses are taking note of who you are now. You’re the competition.
OS: And it was put forward for Best Foreign Oscar by South Africa, so there has been a lot of support.