Many people believe success to be having a lucrative career or attaining popularity in a culture of excess and celebrity worship. But for many others all around the world, retaining their good health, raising children who grow to be functional members of society, and seeing old age before they leave this world are the true hallmarks of success. In Yesterday, a beautifully moving South African drama, the characters therein are exactly the second sort of people, and the audience gets a chance to see a young woman try her very best to succeed at retaining the humble life she’s always wanted for herself.
The title character, Yesterday Khumalo (Leleti Khumalo), is a young Zulu mother living in Rooihoek, Zululand, South Africa with her seven-year-old daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), taking care of her child, the home, and the fields (to ensure enough food for the family to eat), while her husband, John (Kenneth Khambula), works in the diamond mines of Johannesburg. John is only home for brief periods of time, and it’s during one of his absences that Yesterday begins to experience a persistent cough and fatigue, but when the lines in the clinic are too long, it gives her an excuse to put off seeing the doctor. One day, Beauty finds her mother collapsed outside of the family home and runs next door to get help from her mother’s friend, a newly-arrived teacher (Harriet Lenabe). The coaxing and generosity of her friend prompt Yesterday to finally go and see the doctor (Camilla Walker), who confirms that Yesterday has AIDS. Though she doesn’t know much about this illness, Yesterday does know that it is fatal, and will take her away from her daughter. She also knows that, as a faithfully married woman, she contracted this virus from her husband, who must have it also.
In one doctor’s visit, Yesterday’s simple, once-attainable dreams for her life vanish, only to be replaced by a single, burning desire: to live long enough to see her daughter go to school. Despite her husband’s belligerence when she tells him the truth, the other villagers’ fear of the virus, and the fact that he has doomed their daughter to one day becoming an orphan, Yesterday, without an ounce of malice or spite, cares for John and their daughter even as her own condition worsens, displaying a graciousness and kindness that few possess. In multiple acts of physical and emotional strength, and mental perseverance and fortitude, Yesterday works diligently to create something new from the shattered pieces of her former life.
Beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring, touching, and with the added benefit of being entirely in Zulu, culturally-relevant and sincere, Yesterday is the rare foreign film where the characters, their lives, and their language is wildly different from your own, but is deeply relatable precisely because of all of this. It’s difficult to say if many women would have reacted to their impending demise the way Yesterday did, with such force of will and clarity of mind, but seeing this woman’s overwhelming love for her child, and determination to stay with her for as long as possible, is a sentiment echoed all across the globe.
I give this one 5 stars.