No language barrier

The powerful South African film Yesterday - with dialogue in Zulu - uses silence and landscape to tell its tale about the AIDS tragedy.

Published November 27, 2005

Amid the bombast of made-for-television "events," the star-driven blockbuster films delivered on pay-per-view and premium cable, the dry documentaries on science channels and the arty fare of PBS, a quiet little masterpiece sometimes slides in.

HBO delivers one in Yesterday, a blissfully subtle, quietly powerful South African film that speaks volumes with long silences and offers rich, heartbreaking dialogue entirely in the Zulu language.

The title character, Yesterday, is a Zulu woman living in South Africa's poor Zululand territory. She is alone most of the year while her husband toils in the mines of Johannesburg. Her life is simple. She pumps water at the village well, she works in her garden, she lives in her tiny brick house. The spectacular landscape is quiet without the roar of trucks and cars. Yesterday's outlook is sunny and simple, and her 7-year-old daughter, Beauty, is her world.

Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country) contracts AIDS from her husband. Her neighbors are afraid, she worries about them stoning her to death, and her husband beats her when she warns him that he carries the disease.

But the strength of the film is how Yesterday looks ahead. When she could surrender to disease, to her abusive husband, the inadequate medical system and her gossiping neighbors, Yesterday fights to live and see her daughter enter school, embarking on the education she never got.

Tomorrow, she decides, will have Beauty.

Instead of anger, there is peace. Instead of hatred, Yesterday shows compassion and love. When her husband comes home dying of the disease, she cares for him.

"I am not brave," she sighs. "It is just the way things are."

The film - shot in the Zulu village of Rooihoek - is filled with sweeping scenery and sparse but poetic dialogue translated through subtitles.

Explaining to a doctor how her father named her, Yesterday explains, "He said things were better yesterday than they are today. But that was a long time ago."

In many scenes, instead of dialogue, the story advances with a glance, a smile, the crunch of footsteps on a gravel road or the flare of a match.

But the message comes through clearly: AIDS is killing South Africa, said Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and president of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, as he introduced the film to television critics last summer.

Writer-director Darrell James Roodt and producer Anant Singh have teamed before to make antiapartheid films about South Africa. Yesterday earned the blessing of South African icon Nelson Mandela and an Oscar nomination this year in the foreign film category, though it has been shown largely at private screenings and festivals.

Roodt, a native of South Africa, said he spent years thinking about the scourge of AIDS, and he toured the rural countryside, visiting villages, talking with people, trying to understand the toll.

"I wondered, if someone's suffering from AIDS, who has got recourse to nothing, in the middle of nowhere, how does she deal with that?" Roodt said in an introduction delivered to critics with the film.

The resulting film, he said in July, was made on a tight, $1-million budget that forced filmmakers to think in terms as sparse as the scenery, struggling to tell more with less.

"What I really wanted to do was just employ the landscape as much as I could because it would make the story for me five times more beautiful and sad against these extraordinary backgrounds, a beautiful country with this tragedy that's unfolding all the time," he said.

"I know it's difficult, a film in Zulu," Holbrooke said. "I'm sure it will have trouble getting as big an audience as some more popular entertainment that HBO has done. But this is a really important film. It is an absolutely extraordinary insight into what it's like in rural South Africa."

Holbrooke is right. Watching Yesterday is not easy. In parts, it is hard work. But like the journeys that weave through the storyline, each step is a reward, and reaching the end is a satisfying achievement.


Yesterday premieres Monday night at 9 with replays, including Thursday night at 9 on HBO. Grade: A