Told with the simplicity of an African folktale, a lilting rhythm and an almost ethnographic directness, this plaintive story of an afflicted mother's urge to secure a better future for her daughter is a deeply affecting drama that addresses AIDS. Creditable entry in the HBO original films library, has strong future in prestige television slots and festivals.
The increasing concern that advancements in HIV treatment have encouraged the Western world to let down its guard makes a film like “Yesterday” resonate profoundly. Told with the pared-down simplicity of an African folktale, a lilting rhythm and an almost ethnographic directness, this plaintive story of an afflicted mother’s urge to secure a better future for her daughter is a deeply affecting humanist drama that addresses AIDS with gentle eloquence. A creditable entry in the HBO original films library, it should have a strong future in prestige television slots and festivals, with specialized distribution a distinct possibility.
Shot mainly in the parched landscapes of Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, the story of dignity and endurance in the face of abject suffering and deprivation could easily have become a bleeding-heart treatise. Instead, director Darrell James Roodt has crafted an unsentimental drama with as much poetic as emotional force. The project is the first international production shot in the Zulu language.
Establishing a rhythmic pattern of difficult journeys, physically ailing young mother Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo) begins a long trek on foot with her bright, questioning 7-year-old daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase) from their remote Zululand village to the closest clinic.
There, a single doctor is faced with an impossibly long line of patients, who have come from all over the region. Turned away, Yesterday returns the following week in another futile attempt to get treatment.
Meanwhile, she befriends a schoolteacher (Harriet Lehabe), who is new to the village, where most of the other women keep outsiders at a distance. With a chronic cough and lack of energy, Yesterday’s health continues to deteriorate. The concerned schoolteacher insists on minding Beauty and paying for a taxi to take Yesterday to the clinic early enough to be near the front of the line. But following blood tests, the doctor (Camilla Walker) is not optimistic.
Still maintaining the same measured pace and economy of information, the film then notches up into a higher dramatic gear as Yesterday travels to Johannesburg to inform her brutally unaccepting mineworker husband John (Kenneth Kambule).
The developments that follow — John returns ravaged by illness the following winter; Yesterday forgives and cares for him while willing herself to stay alive until Beauty can start school — could easily have tipped the story into melodrama. Instead, it remains a work of quiet power, universality and heartrending compassion.
While the word AIDS is barely spoken, the film provides humbling evidence of the vast gap in available treatment standards in certain parts of the world, notably South Africa, where despite relatively solid healthcare compared to neighboring countries, the illness has replaced apartheid as the national scourge.
Michael Brierley’s graceful camerawork ably harnesses the dusty beauty and forbidding expanses of the landscape to provide an imposing frame, often getting down low, close to the earth, to place the characters even more firmly within their physically harsh environment. Mandala Kunene’s score and haunting African vocals add considerably to the film’s melancholy spell, movingly incarnated in the beautiful, sad features of actress Khumalo in the title role.