Judge Joel Pearce was enthralled by this simple but beautiful tale of the AIDS crisis in Africa.
Powerless to change the past…she lived to change the future.
A fresh, touching experience, Yesterday is an AIDS drama from an African perspective—and so much more.
Facts of the Case
Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, Hotel Rwanda) has been sick since before Christmas, but hoped the illness would go away by itself. It is summer now. She decides to go to a nearby town to see a doctor. She hopes to find out why she feels weak, and why she coughs so much. After a number of ordeals, she finally sees the doctor, only to learn that she has HIV.
While most women would break down at such news, Yesterday means to live until her daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase) goes to school. There are many hardships that she will face along the way, but she believes that willpower will be enough to see her through.
Many films about Africa are criticized, reasonably enough, for not being about Africa at all. Whether they use Africa as a backdrop for a western romance, or explore African problems from the perspective of foreign aid workers, the films dehumanize the African people. They give us scary statistics about the African AIDS crisis, such as that more than 40% of the population in some areas of the country is HIV positive. But the victims themselves remain faceless, their suffering eased by intrepid American doctors. Yesterday breaks through so many stereotypes that it's breathtaking to watch.
While the shattering of stereotypes is impressive from a North American perspective, it must be downright earth-shattering in Africa. Although I don't want to make cultural assumptions, I imagine that one of the main purposes of Yesterday is to inform Africans about HIV in a palatable way. HIV isn't even mentioned until halfway through the film. Much of the focus is on the reaction of Yesterday's narrow-minded villagers. There is much superstition. A local spiritualist, for instance, tries to heal Yesterday by having her put aside her (nonexistent) anger. The movie explains how AIDS is transmitted, carefully and in simple terms. It's astonishing that the film never feels like a morality story or an educational one. It is, however, one of the most straight forward films I have ever seen. Yesterday has a simple, slow pacing, which immediately forces us to slow down and adjust to a different way of life. Although I have seen many films set in Africa, I have never seen a film that captures Africa as well as this.
None of this would be possible without the heartfelt performance of Leleti Khumalo. She has a natural charisma and one of the most expressive faces in film history. If Yesterday is designed to be educational, it's critical that the audience grows attached to her before it's revealed that she is HIV positive. I can't imagine anyone in the world disliking her. The spiritualist's suggestion that she is angry is so ridiculous that it's almost funny. And that, I think, is what makes the film such a huge success. It's not even really an AIDS movie. It's a film about a woman who faces unimaginable adversity with nobility and dignity. Although most of us will never need to face this kind of hardship, setting aside disappointment and pain in hopes of accomplishing something good is a universal idea, and one that I've rarely seen so remarkably handled.
As a side note, this is a great film for those who complain about long medical wait times (read: Canadians) or high costs (read: Americans). It's unbelievable what Yesterday must go through to get medical attention and treatment. I don't know about you, but if I walked miles to a nearby town while sick in order to see a doctor, only to be turned away two weeks in a row, I'd be angry.
Although Leleti Khumalo steals the show, there are other solid performances as well. Yesterday's husband (Kenneth Khambula, I Dreamed of Africa) is a complex character who must face the reality that he is sick and no longer able to work in the mines of Johannesburg. Her daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), is also sincere. Although there are a few other standout supporting roles, many of the villagers are a reminder of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in casting local talent. They feel authentic, but their performances are stilted, as though they're always self-conscious about being filmed.
The technical construction of Yesterday is also impressive. The landscape of South Africa is stunningly captured, and looks both harsh and beautiful. The cinematography is simple but attractive. Wide still shots and close-ups are used to great effect. The transfer to DVD is solid. The video is rich and detailed, capturing the muted landscape and the vividly colored clothing perfectly. There is a bit of edge enhancement, but it's never distracting. The dialogue is sometimes a bit quite, but the ambient sound ripples from a wide sound stage and the music is never overwhelming. The only extra is a commentary with director Darrell James Roodt (Cry, the Beloved Country). He has a natural charisma, and doesn't stop talking very often. It's a fine commentary track, one that is easy to listen to, educational, and entertaining.
Even if you've seen many films about the African AIDS crisis, Yesterday is well worth seeing. I have never before seen a film on the subject that feels like this. It has a quiet, simple grace that is rare. Incidentally, I have no idea why it got an R rating. This is a PG film. The R rating shouldn't prevent anyone from seeing and appreciating this wonderful little gem.
If only more films like Yesterday would be released.
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