Africa's AIDS drama overwhelms at Cannes

A gut-wrenching movie honing in on a gamut of women's issues including AIDS, as seen through the eyes of a South African child, overwhelmed Cannes at its world release Tuesday.

"Life, Above All" by award-winning South African director Oliver Schmitz, was the third movie from the world's poorest continent to wow the crowds at the film world's biggest annual event, winning a 10-minute standing ovation.

"It isn't an AIDS movie," Schmitz told AFP. "It's a very moving drama about a mother-daughter relationship tested by taboo, illness and lies."

A baby dies of an unknown cause, a mother is accused of "poisoning it with her milk", a jobless drunkard father falls seriously ill while neighbours whisper mysteriously in the background.

Shot in a township outside Johannesburg with dialogue in the local Pedi language, the movie unravels at a slow pace as 12-year-old Chanda (played by first-timer Khomotso Manyaka, 13) seeks to understand why her world is falling apart.

No name is given to the illness striking down her family as the young girl tries to make sense of secrets and lies as well as social stigma.

But little by little emerges the spectre of HIV-AIDS, and though Schmitz and the cast deny the pandemic is the heart of the film, the movie states it is dedicated to South Africa's 800,000 AIDS orphans.

"You fall in love with this young girl who is so beautiful while everything around her crumbles," Schmitz said. "The message is about being truthful and opening up to others."

South African actresses Lerato Mvelase, 28, and Harriet Manamela, 38, likewise insisted the main thrust of the movie was openness.

"It's all about women - marital problems, abuse of women, children born out of wedlock," said Manamela.

"The movie says women must start talking, speaking out, if they want to tackle their problems. It shows women and children have the power to change the world," said Mvelase.

Schmitz, who a decade ago moved to Berlin due to lack of work in South Africa, is best known for arthouse hits such as "Mapantsula" and "Hijack Stories" and recently made acclaimed TV series "Turkish for Beginners."

"Life, Above All", a German-South African co-production, is his second entry in competition at the Cannes film festival in the "Un Certain Regard" section.

"There's not enough happening in South African film," he said. "And I don't expect, rightly, a middle-aged white film-maker to get the little funding there is."

Known for its mix of Hollywood heavyweights and small-budget arthouse fare from across the globe, Cannes this year is showcasing the first movie made south of the Sahara to be selected in 13 years to compete for the festival's top award, the Palme d'Or.

Critics lavished praise on Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "A Screaming Man", about a difficult father-son relationship shot with the desert country's on-off civil war raging in the background.

Another Africa headliner movie at the 12-day event is a documentary about a paraplegic band from Kinshasa - Staff Benda Bilili.

They shot from obscurity to fame thanks to film-makers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye, whose documentary screened at Directors' Fortnight, a prestigious festival running parallel to the main event.

"They are remarkable," BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz wrote of the musicians after seeing "Benda Bilili" the movie. "Their music, their spirit, their humour, their existence."

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