Monday, September 20, 2004

'We've jumped from one holocaust to another'

Canadian STEPHANIE NOLEN on the film Yesterday, which opened at the Toronto film festival.

A new South African film is among the first to deal with something other than apartheid, STEPHANIE NOLEN writes. Starring Leleti Khumalo, it focuses on a newer fact of life -- the country's AIDS pandemic

JOHANNESBURG -- Leleti Khumalo was shocked by the script. It was about a woman's life in rural South Africa, much of it built around the water pump in the centre of town, a script about walking miles to the clinic, about gathering firewood and tilling unforgiving soil. It was all, to her black South African ear, perfectly true, and the marvel, for Khumalo, was that it was written by a terribly urban white South African man.

The script was Yesterday, the story of a young woman, named Yesterday through Zulu naming custom, raising her young daughter in a village. She falls ill and learns she has HIV, and realizes she was infected by her husband, a miner who lives in Johannesburg. Yesterday is shunned, scorned, and driven from her village by fearful neighbours, but she is determined to stay alive long enough to see her daughter Beauty start school.

Written and directed by Darrell James Roodt (perhaps known for the adaptation of the anti-apartheid novel Cry, The Beloved Country, starring James Earl Jones), the film stars the luminous Khumalo as Yesterday. It has opened to critical acclaim (although audience reluctance) in South Africa and was warmly received at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago. It screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday, and screens again this morning.

AIDS has been decimating Africa for the past 22 years, but Yesterday is the first mainstream feature film on the pandemic. It shows, more explicitly than is usual in any story about AIDS, how hideously grim and painful it is to die of the disease.

"Why wasn't this movie made 10 years ago?" Roodt mused, talking about the shame and fear that haunts the disease and has largely kept it out of movies, television, art and literature here. "I turned down quite a good offer to make another B-grade piece of shit, and I needed the money, to go and sit under a tree and make this f-ing movie. I thought, 'Enough now. It's time.' "

He headed for KwaZulu-Natal, the region of the country hardest hit by AIDS (as many as 40 per cent of adults are infected with HIV) and drove the winding dirt roads, and loitered, as unobtrusively as possible, in the villages. The result was a script that perfectly echoed the rhythms of Zulu village life as Khumalo (who grew up in the townships of Durban, but retained closed ties to her family village) knew it.

Yesterday, a visually beautiful and achingly simple film, is being noted as the first South African movie that is post-apartheid, finally about something else. And Khumalo suggested that is not an AIDS movie as much as a film about life in South Africa today -- which, for so many people, happens to also mean AIDS. South Africa has the grim title of most-infected nation, with about 5.8-million people living with the virus, and so AIDS is perhaps the inevitable follow from apartheid films -- "we've jumped from one holocaust to another," Roodt noted darkly.

Yesterday is also the first motion picture made in isiZulu, the most widely understood of South Africa's 11 official languages. Roodt, who does not speak isiZulu, wrote the script in English and had it translated. He and producer Anant Singh had originally hoped to film two versions, one in English and one in isiZulu, but Roodt said he realized moments after they started filming that the film had to be in isiZulu. "The actors just . . .," Roodt threw out his arms in a pantomime of blossoming, "they just burst forth."

For Khumalo -- one of the best-known faces of drama in South Africa, who attracts admiring coos and whispers in a Johannesburg cafe -- it was a first and delightful opportunity to act in her native language. "It wasn't like I was acting, I was just telling somebody my life."

Roodt initially wanted to make the movie using "real people," people living with, and dying from AIDS, but, he said, he quickly realized that no one would watch that film. "It's just too brutal," he said. Similarly, he toned down the crammed hospital ward where Yesterday wants to take her dying husband. "The real ward is seething, it's full of death, it assaults you," he said, recalling the hospital he visited doing research.

When they took Yesterday to Venice, Roodt and Khumalo had little idea what to expect. "I wondered, here we are with our Yesterday and it's a South African movie in Zulu and I wonder if these people are going to just march out of the theatre," Khumalo said. "But they stayed until the end of the movie, and they stood up and started to clap and clap. . . ." A week later, she was still radiant at the memory.

While the film may be well-received abroad, there are serious questions about who will see it in South Africa -- it did not do particularly well at the box office in its first week, perhaps a reflection of the country's ongoing state of denial about the AIDS crisis. Singh is negotiating to have South Africa's mining companies show the movie to their work forces. (An estimated 30 per cent of the miners are infected with the virus.) Roodt acknowledged that in today's South Africa, there is an inevitable question about a white filmmaker making what is a "black" story. "I can see the headlines now," he said acerbically. "White Guy Exploits Dying Zulus." But, he said, the reality is that he is the person with the skills to make the movie now. "Ten years from now someone [black] will make the movie and it will be an infinitely better film because it will be made from a deeper truth."