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August 18, 2011 - Image 47

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2011-08-18

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arts & entertainment

Khomotso Manyaka

stars as Chanda.

A coming-of-age tale about a young South African girl who
fights the fear and shame that have poisoned her community.

Suzanne Chessler
Contributing Writer


hirley Foon Wiss of West
Bloomfield was at the Maple Art
Theatre in Bloomfield Township
with friends earlier this summer when she
recognized a film being previewed. As soon
as she left the building — and right in the
street — she made a cell phone call to her
son, screenwriter Dennis Foon, to let him
know that Life, Above All soon would be
shown in the area where he grew up.
She had traveled to the 2010 Toronto
International Film Festival last September
to watch her son's latest project. Now, with
family and friends, she is getting ready to
view again the movie shot in South Africa.
Life, Above All, which won a 10-minute
standing ovation and the Francois Chalais
Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and
was selected as the South African entry
for the Best Foreign Language Film at the
83rd Academy Awards, is scheduled to open
locally on Aug. 26 at the Maple Art Theatre.
Starring first-time actress Khomotso
Manyaka, the film delves into AIDS issues
as experienced by Chanda, a 12-year-old
child living in a dust-ridden village near
Just after the death of her newborn sister,
Chanda learns of a rumor that spreads like
wildfire through her village. It destroys her
family, forcing her mother to flee and put-
ting her younger siblings in Chanda's care.
Sensing that the gossip stems from prejudice
and superstition, Chanda leaves home and
school in search of her mother and the truth.
"The film really talks about the human
condition, people's amazing capacity for
love and the ability to overcome critical
obstacles:' says Foon, 59, during a phone
conversation from his home in Vancouver,

British Columbia.
are done frequently throughout North
"It's a story of a girl's love for her mother
America and Europe.
and about the way the community deals
"The company is thriving and still tours
with the scourge of AIDS.
all over the world. I left in the 1980s after
"I came to film out of theater, and we
running it for 12 years, directing and
lost a lot of great artists during the AIDS
holding workshops. It was through those
pandemic. That touched
plays getting optioned
me deeply, and I always
into TV and film that
wanted to write about it."
I ended up writing
Foon, who gradu-
for TV and film, says
ated from Cooley High
Foon, whose plays
School in Detroit and
include New Kid, the
had his bar mitzvah at
story of an immigrant
Temple Israel, majored
who comes to America,
in religious studies
where the Americans
at the University of
speak gibberish and
Michigan's Residential
the immigrant speaks
College in Ann Arbor.
English to give the
"The college cel-
immigrant's point
ebrates creativity, and
Former Detroiter Dennis Foon: He
of view, and Mirror
it was the first time I
adapted his screenplay for Life,
Game, which examines
met people who worked Above All from Allan Stratton's
the cyclical nature of
professionally as artists
2004 novel, Chanda's Secrets.
physical and psycho-
and writers," he recalls.
logical abuse in the
"I started showing my writing and got a ton lives of four teenage friends.
of encouragement.
His long list of television credits includes
"With my first plays produced, stories
Little Criminals, a portrait of youth that gar-
published and a Hopwood Award received, nered him numerous awards, among them
it seemed I could do something with
the Gemini Award (Canadian Television
my writing. I applied to some graduate
Award) for best television drama. His book
schools to get a master's degree in creative Double Or Nothing about a teenage gam-
writing and was accepted to the University bler, will be released in the fall in a new,
of British Columbia."
revised edition.
Foon's choice of a Canadian university
"The bulk of my work reflects issues
was somewhat based on his happy experi-
of family," says Foon, with a same-sex
ences at Ontario's Camp Tamakwa, and,
partner for 20 years and the father of two
with university classmates, he started the
daughters. "I like to look at the family as a
Green Thumb Theatre.
microcosm of the larger society and what's
"It became an internationally celebrated going on politically.
company doing progressive theater for
"Most of my pieces look at adult children,
young audiences, plays that reflected the
grown people with parents. My last movie,
reality of children," Foon explains. "A lot
Shine of Rainbows, is about an Irish orphan
of plays I wrote in the early years still
adopted by a woman who teaches him

to find the magic in life." Starring Connie
Nielsen and Aidan Quinn, it premiered at
the 2009 Toronto Film Festival.
Foon was invited to write Life, Above All as
an adaptation of the book Chanda's Secrets,
written by Allan Stratton, Foon's friend.
"I met Allan in Vancouver when we
were both doing theater," Foon recalls.
"We reconnected because we had both
published books at the same time with the
same publisher.
"About three years ago, Allan called me
out of the blue and said he met a German
producer who wanted to work with his
book. He wanted to know if it were OK for
him to suggest me as screenwriter."
Foon's work on the script took him to
Germany to meet with director Oliver
Schmitz and then on to South Africa.
"Our collaboration with the South
Africans was illuminating on so many
levels," says Foon, who saw the poverty
in homes and the suffering and reactions
caused by AIDS throughout communities.
"We decided to tell it from a South African
point of view. It's very specific to the vil-
lage where it was filmed:"
"Working with Dennis Foon was fan-
tastic;' says Schmitz about his direction
of the film. "The novel is a first-person
account, and we thought long and hard
about how we would make do without this
inner voice. What we definitely didn't want
was a voiceover narration. We condensed
the story quite a bit and focused on two
sections in the book.
"That Chanda is three years younger in the
film than in the book is a result of research
that was conducted locally. We wanted to be
very specific. That's also why I decided not
to shoot the film in English but in a wonder-
ful local language called Sepedi. It made the
whole thing even more authentic."
One surprising and exciting outcome
from the film's screening at the Cannes
Film Festival was getting the praise and
support of film critic Roger Ebert, who
recommended the project for distribution
by Sony Picture Classics.
"Working on this film has been an amaz-
ing experience says Foon, who gets back to
Michigan about once a year. "I believe the
team brought a work of great beauty and
human compassion to the screen.
"The whole issue of survival against
great odds was an element throughout
my life as a Jew. My grandparents came
out of the pogroms, and I believe the idea
of overcoming obstacles resonates with
people in our community."

Life, Above All, in the Sepedi
language with English subtitles,
is scheduled to open Friday, Aug.
26, at the Maple Art Theatre,
4135 W. Maple, in Bloomfield Hills.
For confirmation, with times and
prices, call (248) 263-2111 or go to
landmarktheatres.com .

August 18 • 2011


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