/ 28 January 2005

Big hit or big miss?

Aids activists have removed some of the glitter from the first Oscar-nomination for a South African feature film, complaining that the movie lacks nuance, is sentimental and comes “10 years too late”.

In what has been hailed as a major coup for the local film industry, the Darrell Roodt film, Yesterday, was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

Starring Leleti Khumalo, the film tells the tale of a rural Zulu woman infected with HIV/Aids. The film follows her struggle to come to terms with the illness and her battle to survive.

Yesterday is the first South African feature film to be nominated for an Oscar, and has been described as the first to be made in Zulu — although this is not true.

Produced by Anant Singh’s Videovision, with financial support from M-Net, the National Film and Video Foundation, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Yesterday has been shown overseas at Aids conferences and film festivals.

The film, which won the Human Rights Film Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, had special screenings in South Africa on World Aids Day last year, while United States cable channel Home Box Office acquired the US television rights.

The movie, said Singh at the time of its premiere at the Durban International Film Festival last year, “confronts the social stigma surrounding HIV and Aids. It is the story of one woman’s perseverance to survive against all odds.”

However, Jonathan Berger of Wits University’s Aids Law Project took a different view. “I thought the movie was about 10 years too late. It’s certainly an important story, but the substance I found a bit out of place today.

“The stereotype of the wife waiting patiently at home, tilling the fields and waiting for her husband to return to infect her is somewhat at odds with many people’s experiences … the picture is much more complex.

“I know it’s just one story, but one would imagine it would have been more nuanced than this very simplistic idea of HIV infection coming from outside, [that] it’s about the migrant labour system, [that] it’s poverty that does this — as if there are no other factors.”

American sociomedical academic Robert Sember, of Columbia University, has criticised the film for its lack of social and historical context, and for not giving any space to activism.

The relentless and sentimental presentation of Yesterday’s victimhood, Sember wrote, “threatens to lock women into an outmoded romance of unwavering sweetness and dogged optimism in the face of suffering. [It] is not angry when it has every right to be.”

Local producer Robbie Thorpe said the nomination proved South African movies did not have to feature international stars to succeed.