YESTERDAY (2004, South Africa, 96 min.), written and directed by Darrell James Roodt; produced by Anant Singh; cinematography by Michael Brierley; music by Madala Kunene; edited by Avril Beukes; with Leleti Khumalo (Yesterday), Lihle Mvelase (Beauty, her daughter), Kenneth Kambule (John Kumalo, her husband), Harriet Lahabe (Teacher), Camilla Walker (Doctor). In isiZulu with English subtitles.
I’m not brave. It’s just the way things are.
year’s Festival, we showed young Norman Maake’s very
powerful film Soldiers of the Rock,
set in the mines of
they most likely all had families, left back in the villages of
Yesterday shows us the impact of this phenomenon
on a wife, a mother, a family and a community.
We are taken through a year in the life of a woman named Yesterday Kumalo (we later learn that she received this unusual name
because her father yearned for earlier, better times), starting in Ehlobo (Summer). The film opens in a stunning landscape that
is at once endlessly barren and indescribably beautiful. The music on the soundtrack captures that
same feeling. We are in the rolling
Yesterday is seeking treatment for a persistent cough that she has had since Christmas, a cough that we will later learn is related to her being infect by the HIV virus. However, this is not something that Yesterday herself will learn that day. When they finally arrive at the clinic, the line already is endless, and after many hours of standing, they are told that they will not be seen that day and should return in a week, and needs to come by sunup.
Back in the village, we get a clear sense of what life is like for the women and children who live there. There are no men. The women work the ground (an arduous task in that hard land), collect firewood, fetch water, wash clothes by hand. It is very, very tough. But these women are tough, and they are full of life. Helping each other pump water at the well, gossiping, making bawdy jokes, they are survivors. The social graces are important, the polite flow of greetings and acknowledgments, smiles and mutual appreciation. While this is not a stereotyped, idyllic portrait of innocent village life—their life is too hard for that—it is a kind of ideal, and one that will unfortunately be shattered by events to come.
Yesterday herself , we learn, was not a native of this village—she was
brought to it by her husband, John, who is now working in a mine near
Indeed, it is thanks to the teacher that Yesterday will finally make it to the clinic in time to see the doctor (a blonde woman doctor who speaks fluent Zulu and is both kind and cautious). But this of course leads to Yesterday learning the terrible truth, that she will soon be dead. In one of the film’s most painful moments we then see her back home, hidden by the corner of her house, staring at her daughter playing innocently and oblivious to her presence. Her face, while never exactly losing its ever-present calmness, is a battleground of emotion. She is filled with so much love for this little girl. So much sadness that she will most likely soon stop living. Yet there is a determination that rises in this beautiful, soulful face as well. She will not settle into self-pity or simply give up, never. She will live at least until she can see her daughter safely in school (something that she never experienced, to her ongoing regret). She will find her husband and tell him what has happened and urge him to seek treatment. This will lead to pain, it will lead to humiliation, to anger, and to incredible acts of kindness and determination. And for the viewer it will also lead to a deep sense of sadness and loss, but also deep admiration and profound kinship with this woman.
* * *
Darrell James Roodt
is one of
Roodt spent two years researching and writing Yesterday. He wrote it in English, and then had it translated into isiZulu. Yesterday was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the first film from South Africa to be so nominated (and, of course, the first in isiZulu). Principal funding came from HBO Films, which also funded the Raoul Peck films Lumumba and Sometimes in April.
Technically accomplished and visually striking, the film clearly reveals the director’s deep love of the land of the Zulu and of the Zulu people. But what comes through most of all is a deep love for the character played by this magnificent actress Leleti Khumalo, whose voice, bearing, and face reveal such fundamental humanity. The camera is constantly lingering on her face, illuminated it seems by the spirit that is within her. It is a powerful portrayal, and emotionally very compelling. If a woman like Yesterday can be the victim of this dreadful disease, we feel, it can happen to anyone . . . and something must be done.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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