"Yesterday" is a very well made movie with a socially conscious message


"I was named that by my father. He said things were better yesterday than today." -- Yesterday

Sometimes, the simple stories are the ones that work best. Forget about the 3-hour blockbuster movie extravaganzas. Forget about the psychological thrillers that boast of more twists than a Chubby Checker song. And you can definitely forget about movies that are like one-trick ponies with a lemming-like mindset. In some cases, keeping the plot straightforward and the cinematography breathtaking is enough to move an audience. And move me, "Yesterday" did.

The first South African film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2005 Academy Awards, "Yesterday" is a purely South African venture from beginning to end. The first feature film to gain the support of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and brought to the U.S. by HBO Films, "Yesterday" is also the first ever feature-length film that features actors who speak solely in isiZulu (or Zulu). Director Darrell James Roodt, has more or less come full circle with this film, first gaining prominence with the apartheid-era film "Sarafina!" and then moving on to lesser Hollywood fare like "Father Hood", "Dangerous Ground" (with Ice Cube) and more recently "Dracula 3000". With "Yesterday", Roodt has gone back and tapped into his South African roots and has fashioned a moving and compelling film that is focused on a subject matter that has continued to plague that country and other African countries for decades. Post-apartheid, South Africa must now face up to a new foe--the deadly scourge and the spread of HIV infections and AIDS.

While it offers an important commentary on the HIV/AIDS situation in South Africa, "Yesterday" is at its core an uncomplicated movie in the pure sense of the word. This is in contrast to its decidedly complex subject matter, which carries many political and social implications. Written by Roodt himself, "Yesterday" chronicles the struggles of a young mother living in rural South Africa under very harsh conditions. The woman in question, Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo), lives in a small remote village called Rooihoek with her seven-year old daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase). Although illiterate and with very little money to her name, Yesterday is a cheery and helpful person who revels in her simple existence. For her and many of the villagers in Rooihoek, there is no need for any of the modern conveniences that we so take for granted. Here, life may be hard but you don't see anyone complaining about it. Yesterday spends the majority of her days tilling a parched plot of land trying to grow food for herself and Beauty and fetching water from a community water pump, which is a place to catch up on some local gossip. As there is virtually no local economy to sustain anything but a subsistence living, Yesterday's husband, John (Kenneth Khambula) goes away for long periods of time, working in one of the many underground mines in Johannesburg.

Recently, Yesterday's health has deteriorated and her attempts to seek treatment are repeatedly thwarted by the faraway location of the nearest clinic that only opens once a week and the limited amount of patients that the resident doctor (Camilla Walker) can see per day. With the help of a new friend, a schoolteacher (Harriet Lenabe) to look after Beauty, Yesterday is finally able to get to the clinic early to see the doctor. Things admittedly take a turn for the worse when Yesterday is diagnosed as HIV-positive. Confused and afraid, Yesterday breaks the awful news to her disbelieving husband, who quickly flies into a terrible rage. Now abandoned by her husband, Yesterday is left all alone to fend for herself and her daughter. Not only must she deal with her worsening health and taking care of Beauty at the same time, her fellow villagers are getting suspicious about her prolonged illness and their ill-informed fears could spell trouble for both mother and daughter.

Principally shot on the largely barren and desolate landscape of Zululand in the Bergville region of KwaZulu-Natal province, "Yesterday" boasts of stunning cinematography that creates not only a sense of isolation but also of harsh beauty. The opening three and a half-minute slow tracking shot alone is enough to convey a sense of remoteness of the location, along with the splendor that the characters exhibit with their cheerful disposition and colorful attire. It quickly draws the audience in to experience the simple yet harsh truths that a typical family in the Zulu heartland has to endure daily. When Yesterday is diagnosed with AIDS, the fragility of one's life in this rural village becomes highly apparent and the urgency of securing a brighter future for her young daughter becomes paramount.

In one particularly tender scene (as you can imagine, there are many in this movie), when the doctor commends Yesterday for taking such good care of herself despite the mounting odds, her response could only reflect the single most important thing on her mind--to live long enough to see Beauty attend her first day of school. That alone speaks volumes of how uncomplicated one's life can be, if one chooses it to be so. At its core, "Yesterday" is a simple story of a dying mother whose only wish in her AIDS-shortened life is to see her young daughter attend school for the very first time and to get an education, an option that was never offered to her.

For all the utter simplicity of the story, there is, however, an underlying and provocative goal that "Yesterday" hopes to achieve. That goal is to gain valuable exposure for a decades-old disease in a country that is in the process of healing from its dark apartheid past and to focus attention on a new and even more dangerous foe, AIDS. The film also tries to put to rest the general fear and ignorance surrounding the spread of HIV infections. Setting this story in populous KwaZulu-Natal province is not a random coincidence and the location is significant because the Zulu ethnic group is said to have the highest HIV infection rate in South Africa.

For all the accolades and critical praise that this film has received thus far, the sincere hope is that the film's all-important message gets to its targeted audience in a timely manner. "Yesterday" simply proves to be a good way to shape tomorrow.

Simply outstanding! "Yesterday" has to have one of the best film transfers to DVD I have ever had the pleasure to watch. This film is presented on DVD in anamorphic widescreen measuring in at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Film grain is kept to the absolute minimum and the colors just jump right out at you, offering a highly defined and natural "look" throughout the entire film. The black levels are excellent and there are no defects or scratches to speak of. Clearly, this is a very recent movie and the superb quality of the source print shows in this transfer. There are two subtitle options on this DVD and they are English and French.

The main audio option on this DVD is the Zulu language Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Nothing about this particular track stands out because dramatic films generally do not tax one's audio system. But it does its job pretty well, presenting clear and crisp dialogue (as far as I can tell) and a nice-sounding orchestral score to back up the story. The only other audio option on this DVD is a Spanish language Dolby Surround 2.0 track.

The only bonus feature on this DVD is an audio commentary by director and writer Darrell James Roodt. Mr. Roodt offers up a pretty decent commentary that touches on many of the background aspects in the making of this film. I'm not a particularly big fan of audio commentaries but this one certainly held my attention.

"Yesterday" comes to DVD in a white keepcase with a glossy insert that lists the chapters of the movie.

Film Value:
"Yesterday" is a straightforward film with a clear goal and a sense of purpose. Beautifully shot and thought provoking, this film is a gut-wrenching look at the true struggles and hardships of a young Zulu woman suffering from a deadly disease that is sadly becoming increasingly commonplace in South Africa. Do not let the foreign language factor cloud your enjoyment of this film. "Yesterday" is a very well made movie with a socially conscious message that would resonate very well with almost anyone.


Film Value