In "Yesterday," South African writer/director Darrell Roodt illustrates the crises of AIDS, health care in the third world, the hope of education and the role of women in Africa with vivid visuals and a simple story.
While some characters are drawn in the script as too nice to be believable --in moving but restrained acting the titular mother is too saintly, the fluent Zulu speaking white public health doctor she finally reaches after four days of waiting shows no strains for the demands on her time, the school teacher who literally suddenly appears and befriends her is too helpful -- this quiet story poignantly communicates a lot of information and humanizes statistics.
The opening shots emphasize the vastness of distances in rural Africa as a prime impediment to the delivery of modern heath care -- even for those determined women who try to seek it for the benefit of their children. The camera is a passive observer of the personal and social details of the mother's life with her treasured young daughter "Beauty," even as it is substantially into the film before we get insights into her seemingly superhuman strengths and how she came to be so independent, with very brief flashbacks.
We get a matter-of-fact view of the arduousness of subsistence living village life--gathering water, food and laundry-- and the down side of "it takes a village" as the ignorance, fear and gossip are even more powerful than in urban "Philadelphia." One weakness in the film, though, is not identifying if it is happening now as it's hard to believe South Africans, urban and rural, are still this naive about AIDS, though the recent "Cape of Good Hope" also showed South Africans still insisting that AIDS was a foreigners' disease. Similarly, there are interstitial labels of seasons to show time passing, but what happens seems too concentrated than can really happen in a single year, so may be metaphorical.
The film takes a jarring turn to another layer of social issues when the mother, probably uniquely in her community, concedes to the doctor's insistence to confront her miner husband in the city about their condition, a request that seems simplistically basic to the doctor but the wife has to surmount enormous odds to accomplish. Even simple medical instructions are mountains to climb. We get a graphic impression of the difficulties of the husband's life and their relationship, even as over time it changes under the overwhelming pressures of reality.
The cinematography of rural to urban South Africa geography, from endless horizon to city buses, is stunning.
The songs by Mpahleni Latozi, performed by Madosini, are particularly evocative.
The film is inevitably a tear-jerker, but not a sentimental one. One can't help but lose it when the wife and mother finally breaks down and cries -- before picking herself and doing what needs to be done.
I viewed the film on PBS TV and the concluding panel discussion by experts was way too boring to sit through compared to the visceral impact of the film.