After falling ill, Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) learns that she is HIV positive. She lives in a remote South African Zulu village, where life is hard and without modern conveniences. It takes weeks to see a doctor. Her husband (Kenneth Khambula) is away at work in the mines near Johannesburg. When he learns of the diagnosis, he is furious. But Yesterday has a bright personality and with a nine year old daughter to tend to, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), and her one goal is to live long enough to see her child go to school.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Early in Yesterday, the ailing title character consults a "wise woman" and is told, among other things, that she cannot be helped until she acknowledges the "anger" she carries inside her. At this point, we can only guess what this unfailingly submissive but seemingly content woman might have to be angry about. Even when we learn that her mystery illness is AIDS, it's hard to find a sole villain who can be blamed for the tragedy. Her unfaithful husband, whose mining job keeps him away from her for months at a time? The overworked doctors who can't find time to see her? The fearful village women who shun her after her condition becomes known? Everybody has their reasons; for a simple melodrama, Darrell James Roodt's film certainly raises more questions than it answers.
This is not to say that Roodt is particularly interested in the psychology of his heroine, an innocent vessel of suffering whose childlike perceptions provide the basis for the film's style. Her fruitless pilgrimages in search of help repeat themselves as inevitably as journeys in a folk tale; when she ventures to the city, skyscrapers tower over her in exaggerated low-angle shots. In between the tear-jerking close-ups, the camera follows the characters along straight lines (barb-wire fences, or the queues outside the medical centre) as if to define the boundaries that enclose them.
There's a touch of educational theatre to this approach, and while Roodt's visual confidence is impressive, Yesterday is only secondly an art movie. Clearly, the intention is to deliver a message to local viewers about the realities of AIDS, and perhaps bring some lessons home to others as well. As in Ousmane Sembene's more sophisticated Mooleade, the conscious simplicity is a double-edged sword - presumably, Roodt means to affect his viewers' emotions directly but also distance them enough to give them space to reflect. With the first task at least he succeeds, but I could wish that more of Yesterday's diagnosed anger broke through to the surface: the danger is that her misfortune could seem timeless, part of the inevitable sorrow of life, rather than something which might have been prevented.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Deeply affecting, Yesterday is a wonderfully satisfying if sad film, beautiful not only to look at but through its characters. A sensitive, intelligent and economical script gathers dramatic momentum and builds tension. Gentle yet powerful, gripping yet lyrical, Yesterday rightly earned a nomination for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2005.
The gentleness of Leleti Khumalo as Yesterday (her father gave her the name, believing things were better yesterday than today) and the natural appeal of her daughter Beauty (no need to explain) combine to draw us to them. But the film is not manipulative. There is a raw honesty about its story, one of millions in Africa, which is deeply touching.
Camilla Walker is excellent as the clinic doctor, stretched beyond capacity, as are the smaller supports. But it's the superb screenplay that lifts the film above its disparate parts. While it deals with the scourge of AIDS, it does so through the specifics of these characters. The core social issues are all canvassed, with devastating impact.
Adding to all of the film's powers is the stunning landscape and the Zulu language itself; rare and beautiful sound, it engages us on a deep level somehow that I do not profess to understand.
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(S. Africa, 2004)
CAST: Kenneth Khambula, Leleti Khumalo, Harriet Lenabe, Lihle Mvelase, Camilla Walker
PRODUCER: Anant Singh, Helena Spring
DIRECTOR: Darrell James Roodt
SCRIPT: Darrell James Roodt
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Brierley
EDITOR: Avril Beukes
MUSIC: Madale Kulele
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tiaan van Tonder
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 20, 2005