Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka) hasn't been to school much lately. She has to bury her baby sister, and take her drunken stepfather's bicycle to pay for the coffin. Her father is dead, her mother (Lerato Mvelase) can barely get out of bed, and absolutely nobody has AIDS. They suffer from pneumonia, or rheumatism, or demonic possession. In Chanda's village, 200 kilometers northeast of Johannesburg, saying your son was killed in a robbery is preferable to admitting the truth. 

Those wondering why AIDS remains intractable in South Africa need look no further than Life, Above All, which is based on a young-adult novel by Canadian playwright Allan Stratton. The hospitals are well-stocked—although Chanda has to get in line to get an ambulance—but patients prefer to see quacks who will tell them what they want to hear and sell them multilevel-marketed potions. It's not just shame that keeps the victims and their families from seeking medical care; it's the fear of being driven from their home. That's what happened to Chanda's friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who, having lost both parents to AIDS, has been cast out by her relatives. She lives in something less than a hovel, and at 13 is working as a truck-stop hooker. And that's what's happening now to Chanda's mother, who has been ordered by a witch doctor to return to her childhood home to break the curse that is weakening her, leaving Chanda to take care of her two younger stepsiblings and deal with the busybody next door (Harriet Manamela). 

South African filmmaker Oliver Schmitz (Mapantsula) keeps the action at a 12-year-old's eye level, as Chanda observes the follies of adults and tries to change their ways. But superstition and misogyny make a lethal brew; it will take more than money to solve this crisis, or one strong-willed little girl. While Life, Above All offers no easy answers, it puts forth a frank assessment of the cultural obstacles to fighting AIDS in the country with the highest rate of infection in the world. PG-13

75 SEE IT: Life, Above All opens Friday at Fox Tower.