Yesterday: Leleti Khumalo
Beauty: Lihle Mvelase
Teacher: Harriet Lenabe
Doctor: Camilla Walker
Husband: Kenneth Khambula
HBO Films presents a film written and directed by Darrell James Roodt. Running time: 96 min. Rated R (for pervasive strong violence).
Yesterday is one of those films that inspires critics to write proclamations about it like, “a celebration of life” and “a beautiful, touching human experience”; and while those phrases obviously do come to mind (since I wrote them here for you to read); such clichés are really beneath a film this delicate and beautiful. Yesterday also has the distinction of being the first ever Zulu language film to be nominated or even submitted for the Foriegn Language Academy Award, and while this is also notable enough for me to mention in the first paragraph of my review of it, it is also something that loses its importance under the pleasure of viewing the film itself.
Yesterday tells the story of a mother and daughter. The mother is named Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, Sarafina!), the daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase). They live in the small village of Rooihoek in South Africa’s Zululand. Yesterday’s husband (Kenneth Khambula, I Dreamed of Africa) is a mine worker in Johannesburg and lives away from home most of the time.
Life in Rooihoek is hard for these families without fathers (most of the men work in the mines). It is harder for outsiders in the village. Yesterday was an outsider before her marriage and it took many years for her to be accepted as one of the townspeople. Yesterday befriends a teacher (Harriet Lenabe, Hotel Rwanda) who comes to the town looking for work and finds an opening. Beauty is a year away from being old enough for school, and Yesterday is very excited for her daughter for the opportunity to go to school she never had herself.
Yesterday falls ill and must go to see a doctor in a town that is over a two hour walk away. When she arrives, the line to see the sole doctor is long; and she is turned away until the following Tuesday, when the doctor will return. It takes several weeks before Yesterday can see the doctor (Camilla Walker), who eventually informs her of the disease she suffers from. I am reluctant to reveal what is wrong with Yesterday, as then it becomes yet another notable facet of the film that distracts from its simple beauty. Yesterday’s illness is very important to the film and what it is about, but I will leave that to the viewer to discover.
What impressed me first about this important work were the beautiful landscapes in this harsh African wilderness. The Dark Continent is often depicted as a dirty, restrictive place, where life is oppressive and there is little joy. The world shown here by director Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!, Cry, the Beloved Country) is one that is full of beauty and has a complete spectrum of life’s emotion. The photography and lighting by cinematographer Michael Brierley (Second Skin) captures a beauty that feeds the meaning and emotional power behind the story, yet still shows what a beautiful world it is in which these people live their lives of triumph and tragedy.
Yesterday finds herself in between two worlds. One that holds modern disease and medicine, and the industry in which her husband must make their living; and that of the village where witch doctors still practice the healing of its own, and any nonconformity is viewed as an affront against the community. Through all this Yesterday keeps her chin up with a lofty spirit. She lives only for her daughter and Beauty’s entrance into school becomes a goal for Yesterday to live for. Even her husband offers her no empathy; but when he needs her, she is there. Yesterday gives to all in her life the strength of all that she feels came before her, and so she is a hero beyond aspirations.
It is hard to write of this film and not take an exalted tone, but that is really where a film of Yesterday’s simple power belongs. It never received a true theatrical release in this country, only appearing at a scattering of film festivals, and premieres this month on HBO. An early 2006 DVD release is planned; and it is a film that should not be missed.
Once again the MPAA ratings board has pulled an atrocious play on nonsensical judgment with award of an R rating for this picture. Not only is the rating abusive to the gentle and educational nature of the film, but their reasoning behind it makes less sense than any they have ever cited before. I feel ashamed even reporting it. “For pervasive strong violence.” There is a scene of domestic violence in the film. One scene. Less than a minute in length. And the violence is actually obscured by the setting, it occurs off screen essentially. Very tastefully done. I have no clue of where they culled the descriptor “pervasive”. Aghast am I.