Yesterday: on HBO
Oscar-Nom "Yesterday" on HBO
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars(r) this year, the HBO Films presentation Yesterday debuts
Other HBO playdates: Nov. 30 () and Dec. 1 (, ), 6 () and 14 ().
HBO2 playdates: Dec. 10 (), 13 (), 26 (, ) and 29 ().
Set in contemporary
Yesterday lives in Rooihoek, a remote village in
The precarious balance of Yesterday's life is suddenly threatened when she is diagnosed with AIDS and must journey afar to understand and confront her illness. Yesterday's primary driving force is Beauty, who is a year away from starting school. Yesterday never had the chance to go to school and she sets her sights on a single goal: to be with Beauty on her first day of class, along with all the other proud mothers.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Writer-director Darrell James Roodt and producer Anant Singh teamed up in their early careers to make some of the most significant anti-apartheid films made in South Africa, including "Place of Weeping," "Sarafina!" and "Cry, the Beloved Country."
"When I was a kid I was only exposed to American movies and, like most aspiring filmmakers, I wanted to make 'Jaws,' " says Roodt. "Then I turned 18 and realized what an extraordinary country I was living in and became determined to make films about what was happening around me. My heart is with
Roodt also feels it is vital that South Africans tell their own stories. "If you're from somewhere, be it
"Darrell and I began making films together that emotionally engage their audience so as to reflect on the atrocities and problems of the apartheid system," says Singh. "And Darrell came up with the idea of trying to take a similar approach to the AIDS pandemic in
Despite having a well-developed health infrastructure compared to other African nations, South Africa has more HIV-positive people than any other country in the world, and on the continent 56,000 Africans are dying every week, with only one doctor for every 18,000 people.
"I was haunted by the images of suffering, and I felt that I needed to make a film about this," says Roodt. "At the same time, I wanted to avoid any kind of messaging. I just wanted to tell a very simple story and make it completely open-ended. I wanted to put it out there and let it be a talking point."
An important factor in the rapid spread of AIDS in
But the causes of AIDS in
Roodt began with extensive research in a number of Zulu villages. "I spent quite a long time, mostly just talking, listening and watching," he says. "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? And rise above it? Not just beat her chest and say 'Woe is me!' "
There were many things that surprised the director as he was fashioning his script. "For example, the two teachers," says Roodt. "I picked those two teachers up in my car. They had literally been walking for two years trying to find a place to teach! I told them, 'Come on, you must be joking!' Because you'd think, 'Maybe two weeks or perhaps two months...but two years?' "
The film's title came from a Zulu naming custom. "There's a tradition among Zulu people to give their children names like 'First Born' or 'Confidence' or 'Tomorrow,' " says Roodt. "And I thought that 'Yesterday' had beautiful melancholic reverberations. It had such resonance that if your parents gave you such a name you would live your entire life with it."
After completing the script, Roodt sent it to Singh, explaining, "Anant understands the kinds of films I want to make more than anyone else I know. I've done my best work with him and hope to do more in the future." Singh received the script on a Friday and on Saturday he called Roodt to say, "Let's make this film."
"For me, emotion, strength and simplicity were the most appealing aspects," says Singh. "Also, Darrell has tremendous energy and a great visual sense. I think he is one of
Making a socially conscious film like Yesterday is not an easy thing to achieve in contemporary
The financing for Yesterday was painstakingly assembled with money from a TV station, grants, non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations and HBO Films. "Trying to make movies in
Singh is very closely involved with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, as well as the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund (which supports a number of AIDS programs around the country) and is on the board of 46664, which is Mandela's AIDS initiative. (The name comes from his prison number.) Singh approached the organization and it was agreed that Yesterday would be a perfect match for their efforts. "On one hand, we can help them with fund-raising, through special showings and premieres," Singh notes. "And on the other, they can help us get the film out to rural areas where it normally wouldn't be seen." The foundation has formally honored Yesterday by allowing its name to be on the credits.
Once the film was shooting, Singh passed the script to HBO, with whom he has collaborated since the beginning of his career. "They have been immensely valuable in their creative input and also in the process towards getting the film completed and released," says Singh.
Roodt was determined to make Yesterday in the Zulu language -- the first time a major feature film intended for international release had been done completely in Zulu. (There have been some smaller films made previously for local consumption.) "It was essential to make it in Zulu, as that's where the truth is," says Roodt. "Also, I thought that if I could make a film that succeeds outside
During the audition process for the film, Roodt was asked to try one take in Zulu and one in English, in the hopes that two versions of the film could be created. "The common practice in this country is to make films in English," says Roodt, "but it instantly weakens them, in my opinion. The Zulus embody everything that is unique and extraordinary about the South African experience. It was truly inspiring to call 'action' and listen to this beautiful language unfold."
Roodt set his sights on one actress for the title role: Leleti Khumalo, with whom he first worked with as the lead in his film version of the musical "Sarafina!" and in "Cry, the Beloved Country." "I first saw her when she was eighteen," says Roodt. "She was wonderful, so full of life and vigor, and with such utter commitment to what she was doing. And when I was writing this, I thought, 'I've got to use her again because it's like a journey that has come full circle. The child has now become the mother, who's now become the victim. Apartheid is gone, but AIDS is right in its wake.'
"Leleti is an extraordinary actress to work with," he continues. "She's able to express with her eyes and her face -- in an extremely subtle, almost imperceptible way -- something deeply moving. And when she smiles she just lights up the screen on a fundamental level. When we're on set and working, she's always completely focused, but in real life she's completely different from the character of Yesterday. She's vivacious and vibrant and wears all these funky clothes!"
Extensive casting sessions, including open auditions, were conducted to find the other members of the Zulu cast. It was at one of these open calls that Roodt found seven-year-old Lihle Mvelase, who plays the role of Beauty. "I was completely dazzled by her," says Roodt. "I interviewed her and did a couple of scenes with her and she was absolutely breathtaking on camera. Later on, when we actually shot the film, it was a bit harder-I had to use some tricks to help her along-but there is something absolutely beautiful about her performance."
Roodt was impressed by the total commitment of his cast. After he cast Kenneth Kambule, who plays Yesterday's husband, Roodt said, "Kambule, the character's dying of AIDS, could you lose some weight for me?" When Kambule arrived on the set to shoot his role Roodt could barely believe his eyes. "He came looking like a toothpick! For a three-day part! I was completely blown away by his level of commitment."
For the four-week shoot in October 2003, the production worked and lived on location in
"When you drive through
"What we've found with the film," says Singh, "is that people go through the journey of the narrative and are very influenced in an almost unobtrusive way. That's something you could never contemplate from the script. It's the way the movie plays out."
Although Roodt isn't fluent in Zulu, he found that he rarely needed to make use of his translators. "You don't need to be fluent in Zulu to understand the truth of what's happening. I knew when a take wasn't working. Or when there was a stumble or the flow wasn't right. It was very interesting. The actors loved acting in Zulu -- there was such pride involved."
One notable aspect about Zulu culture is how upbeat they can be amid a very harsh reality. "Even during the apartheid years, African culture had this natural kind of buoyancy," says Roodt. "A joy of life. Even in the direst, most difficult circumstances, people just rise above it. It's quite amazing."
"There is an African term, 'ubuntu'," says Singh. "It means, 'I am because you are.' And the spirit of ubuntu is found in the character of Yesterday: She forgives, and it's totally remarkable in one sense. But when you watch it with an African local audience, they very much understand."
"You could see Yesterday's story as a tragic one," says Roodt. "But if you've got her character, her absolute strength of will, you can push through the most terrible things."
On the way, they meet two teachers who have been looking for work for two years. Yesterday isn't sure if there is work in her village, Rooihoek, but tells them that they have a two-hour walk to get there.
Arriving at the clinic, Yesterday is distressed to see a long line. After waiting all day in the hot sun, they are sent home and told to return the following Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Yesterday and Beauty again make the arduous trek to the clinic in Kromdraai. Although they arrive much earlier, they are once again too late to see the doctor. On the way back they run into one of the two teachers (Mmoni Moabi), who says that her friend was lucky and got a job in Rooihoek.
Later, Beauty comes back to the family hut to see two legs sticking out of the doorway. It's Yesterday, who has collapsed. Hysterical, Beauty runs out, screaming for help.
Yesterday goes to see the Sangoma, the traditional healer, in her hut. The Sangoma tells Beauty that she will not be able to help her unless she lets go of her anger. Yesterday is confused. "I am not angry. What do I have to be angry about?"
The Teacher (Harriet Lehabe), concerned about Yesterday, suggests that she take a taxi. Yesterday feels that the five rand (75 cents) is a waste of money and prefers to walk. At dawn, the Teacher wakes up Yesterday and insists that she get in the "taxi" (a minivan), telling her that it is already paid for. The Teacher will take care of Beauty during the day.
Yesterday tries to pay the Teacher back for the taxi ride, but she refuses to accept. She expresses her gratitude to Yesterday for being her friend, and says she looks forward to teaching Beauty. Yesterday says that Beauty will be ready next year.
Finally, Yesterday is able to see the doctor (Camilla Walker), a blonde woman who speaks Zulu. Yesterday tells the doctor that she was named by her father: "He said things were better Yesterday than Today." The doctor listens intently to Yesterday's breathing and then asks for her written consent to a blood test. Yesterday stares uncomprehendingly at the form, before admitting that she can't read or write. The doctor waives the form and takes Yesterday's blood.
At the clinic, the doctor asks Yesterday many disturbing personal questions and although neither of them says so outright, it is clear that Yesterday has just been given a diagnosis of AIDS. The doctor says that it is important that Yesterday contact her husband and have him tested. Yesterday looks sadly at the doctor and asks, "Am I going to stop living?"
After unsuccessfully attempting to phone her husband, Yesterday takes the minibus to
During the long ride back to Rooihoek, Yesterday flashes back to the happy memories of her marriage. Tears roll down her bruised cheeks.
It is now winter. Yesterday still appears relatively healthy, but all the joy seems to have been drained from her face and she struggles with her chores. Coming home, she sees her husband John, gaunt and sickly, leaning against their hut. That night, the two sit on opposite sides of the kitchen table, a gulf between them. John tells her how he didn't want to believe her, but his illness gradually made it impossible for him to work. Shaking with shame, he breaks down. Yesterday gets up and cradles his head to her chest.
At the clinic, the doctor is impressed with Yesterday. Her body is strong, keeping the disease in check. "It is not my body, it is here," says Yesterday, touching her temple. "Until my child goes to school, I will not die."
The Teacher tells Yesterday that the whole village is saying her husband has AIDS. Yesterday tells the Teacher that it's true -- and she has it too. She tells the Teacher about a woman from another village who was stoned to death by her neighbors for having the virus. "What are you going to do?" asks the Teacher. Yesterday doesn't answer.
The Teacher tries to explain to the local women that Yesterday's husband poses no health risk to them, but they are not persuaded. Unable to place John in a hospital because of a long waiting list, Yesterday creates her own solution and starts collecting junk and scrap metal to build a new hut, where she will care for her husband. Through sheer will she completes the shack on an empty grassy field and helps John make the excruciating step-by-step walk to his new home, as the villagers stare at them sullenly. Unfortunately, Yesterday's valiant efforts to make a peaceful place for her husband to rest are cut cruelly short. John dies soon after the move.
Six months have passed. It is summer again. Yesterday mourns in front of John's grave. The disease is finally beginning to take its toll on her. She is much thinner and there are a few sores on her face. She is joined by the Teacher, who tells her, "When the time comes, I will care for your daughter as if she is my own."
At the house, Yesterday has a gift for Beauty. It is the dress that she will wear on her first day of school. In the morning, Beauty takes her place in the courtyard, amid all the other children. She's wearing her brand new uniform and is smiling happily at her mother.
Looking on from the schoolyard gate, Yesterday smiles proudly. She turns from the gate and heads down a long, dusty road, until she is just a tiny figure in the distance.
AIDS is the leading cause of death in
Currently, 56,000 Africans die each week.
The latest global reports estimates the total number of adults and children with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa as 25 to 28 million. The number is expected to rise to 30 to 35 million by the end of the decade.
Sub-Saharan African is the worst infected region in the world with over 3 million new infections and over 2 million deaths in 2003.
There is only one doctor for every 18,000 Africans.
Estimated HIV-infected: 4,800,000.
Estimated 2003 AIDS deaths: 375,000. This represents a 30% increase in the annual number of deaths from AIDS since 2000.
11% of South Africans are HIV-infected.
Each day, an estimated 1,600 people are newly diagnosed with HIV.
76% of HIV-positive South Africans are not aware of their status.
Sources: The Centers for Disease Control,