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A woman's journey. In a Zulu village, Yesterday is a cheerful mother with an inquisitive five-year-old child, Beauty. Yesterday has a persistent cough, and after several attempts to see the doctor at a regional clinic, she gets a diagnosis. She goes immediately to Jo'burg, where her husband is a miner. Then she must deal with consequences. Her singular motivation is to see that Beauty enrolls in school the next fall. The film begins and ends with Yesterday walking on a road. Written by
A lingering sideways tracking shot across a bare expanse of burnt, tussocky grass towards distant, shadowy mountains takes us into the first moments of Yesterday, the first film ever made in isiZulu. The quality of the film is apparent at once. The D.O.P. has a real aesthetic eye, and this opening shot, a beautifully judged and mesmerising piece of photography accompanied by the inventive and idiosyncratic music of Madala Kunane, whose range of styles throughout the film is impressive announces a film of strong images and expert direction (Director, Darrell Roodt). The shot comes to rest on the figures of two young Zulu girls, a mother and a daughter, as they amble slowly up a tortuously long road towards an unknown destination. The daughter asks simple questions - the type that make youth appear so endearingly innocent: "why am I not a bird? Then I could fly where we're going." It is a moment of beautiful, unforced poetry (the sort that self-conscious poets might do well to observe) and sets the tone for the film that is to come. Yesterday concerns one of the most pressing issues in Africa today, the spread of AIDS, which has in recent years reached epidemic proportions. From that premise, it soon becomes clear where the two travellers are headed: the nearest doctor. This trip is the beginning of a terrible descent the progenitor of chain of scarifying revelations, the first of which is that the young mother the title character, Yesterday (played sensitively by Leleti Khumbalo, ideally sympathetic casting with her angelic features) is diagnosed with AIDS. As the film proceeds we witness how Yesterday deals with the horrifying burden of sickness in a society that is still largely ignorant of the causes of disease, and highly suspicious of those who succumb to it; and in a country whose government offers no real material or moral help for such extremity. Yesterday is an examination of life under the tyranny of the incurable. Nevertheless, the film eschews any overtly political comment (though there are a couple of scenes that tempt us to draw our own conclusions) and remains a purely personal story of a young woman's fight against the invincible. Yesterday is a young mother living in a small African village, trying to raise her daughter and give her the education that she herself was denied. She knows nothing of AIDS when the horror of knowledge is thrust upon her. But her natural perspicacity allows her to see clearly into the life of things, and as she faces the inevitability of premature death, she draws strength from within herself though it is clear that Yesterday herself is little removed from the youthful innocence of her own daughter when she becomes inheritrix to the worst of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. All that remains for her to do is try to shield her daughter from them. Events conspire against her, yet bolster her at the same time. A terrifying confrontation with her husband (a brilliant cameo, superbly played by Kenneth Khambula), the man who gave her AIDS, leads to a heart-rending reconcilement. Ostracism by her fellow villagers who imagine the disease to be the result of some moral peccadillo leaves her to fight the disease alone; but this itself leads to friendship with the village's rationally-minded and sympathetic schoolteacher (played by Harriet Lenabe). Death gives her a determination to live. In every case the bad engenders some good. In charting the effects of AIDS on the person and personality of this young woman (and, frighteningly graphically, in her husband) we see the human condition reach both its nadir and its zenith. The disease is at once catastrophically demoralising and vigorously ennobling. Yesterday's courage in the face of irremediable adversity is tearfully potent. She is a heroine in the true sense of performing heroic actions against the odds. Illness forces her to strength, fear engenders courage, and in the darkest oppression her spirit seems to soar. Yet the film never descends into self-pity. Rather, it makes clear that AIDS is simply a part of life in Africa something that some people, at some time, will just have to deal with. Pity exists in that very coldness. The relationship which grows up between Yesterday and the teacher becomes the most important aspect of the film, because the teacher is in effect the only person in the district who understands what AIDS is; and because of that understanding, she able to evince compassion. Here, perhaps, is the film's agenda, its philosophical crux: a subtle plea for the dissemination of education and greater awareness in Africa, since only understanding can engender reason and humanity. It is a point that is not pushed, nor does it need to be, it speaks so eloquently for itself. As a moral fable, Yesterday is wonderfully judged. The decline of Yesterday's physical health becomes the ascension of her mental courage, and the strength of character she displays by the end of the film allows one to believe that the human being can rise above its own condition when it needs to. But the film does not stray into the cheapness of tearjerking. It remains firm, stark and moving in its own integrity.
Filmed on a microbudget, Yesterday relies on the potency of its own sombre story to push it forward, the stark beauty of its scenery, and the powerful performances of its cast. Shot with an unerring eye for detail and burgeoning with picturesque photography, it is surely one of the most profound and interesting films to be released this season. Yesterday is playing at cinemas nationwide.
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