Roger Ebert Home

A continent speaks for itself

“Yesterday,” the story of a Zulu woman, was co-produced by Helen Springer (from left); Darrell James Roodt directed; Leleti Khumalo starred, and Anant Singh was producer.

TORONTO -- Anant Singh opened his first video store in Durban, South Africa, when it was still illegal for a nonwhite to own a store in a whites-only area. Mark Bamford and Suzanne Kay moved from Los Angeles to South Africa four years ago to make movies. For many years, their interracial marriage would have been against the law there. Darrell James Roodt started making anti-apartheid films in the early 1980s, when he had to work in secret. His producer was Anant Singh, who used profits from his video stores to back films he could not legally make. Leleti Khumalo, who is 33, spent the first 23 years of her life living under apartheid. Her father died when she was 3. Her mother worked as a domestic, raising her four children in a home with a bed as its single piece of furniture.

All of these people grew up to become major players in the emerging South African film industry -- which, 10 years after the fall of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as president, is being showcased at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. It's a measure of the maturing South African film scene that there were enough new titles of festival stature to justify the recognition. A few years ago there would have been only one or two, such as "Sarafina!" (1992) and "Cry, The Beloved Country" (1995), both made by the pioneers Singh and Roodt, both starring Leleti Khumalo.

I've seen four of the films with South Africa connections, and they are among the best films at Toronto this year. Like Australia in the early 1970s, the nation is finding its voice on the screen. Sometimes that voice expresses pain and courage, as in "Yesterday," starring Khumalo as a Zulu woman who lives in an isolated village while her husband works in the mines of Johannesburg. Sometimes it expresses the joys and sorrows of human nature, as in Bamford and Kay's "Cape of Good Hope," about the everyday lives of Cape Town characters of African, European and Indian descent. Sometimes it explains extraordinary political events, as in Tom Hooper's "Red Dust," which is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gave amnesty to South Africans willing to tell the truth about crimes they committed under apartheid. Sometimes it looks north on the continent, as in Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda," which is about genocide against the Tutsi minority by the ruling Hutu.

These films express a new freedom for South African cinema, where every single film no longer has to carry the burden of representing the entire nation to the world. "Cape of Good Hope" shows interlocking Cape Town lives not unlike those in the Los Angeles movie "Grand Canyon." "Yesterday" is the first film shot in the Zulu language. "Red Dust" explores a paradox: To be pardoned, the defendants in Truth and Reconciliation hearings had to confess, not deny, their crimes. "Hotel Rwanda" is a glimpse of what might have happened in South Africa if the wounds, injustices and hatreds of the past had been allowed to fester after apartheid fell.

The four films are wonderful in different ways. The most universal in its impact is the one that might seem most provincial, "Yesterday." Directed by Roodt, produced by Singh and his associate Helen Spring, it stars Khumalo as Yesterday, a farm woman who raises her daughter, Beauty (Lihle Mvelase), in a Zulu village "in the middle of nowhere." Her husband sends money from his labor in the mines, but is away for months at a time.

Yesterday develops a cough, and walks two hours to a rural clinic, where the doctor appears on Tuesdays and can't get to most of the patients. When she finally gets an appointment, Yesterday discovers she is HIV-positive. She has to cope with her illness, with her dying husband, with her little daughter for whom she has such dreams. The movie is about Yesterday's hope and her courage, and it is powerful and moving, conveying information about AIDS in a country where it is widely misunderstood. It was crucial to film in Zulu, Khumalo says, so the message could go where it was most needed.

"Yesterday" tells "a simple story," says Singh, "but it is stronger for its simplicity." It's simple not because it is simplified (its emotional complexity runs deep) but because by containing not a single unnecessary shot, word or character, it achieves a kind of purity and universality, like "The Bicycle Thief" or "Salaam Bombay!," or "Pixote." It will be this year's South African contender for an Oscar nomination.

"Cape of Good Hope" follows several lives: A white woman (Debbie Brown) who runs an animal shelter, a white veterinarian (Morne Visser), an Indian woman (Quanita Adams) who cannot conceive a child, a black domestic, her son, and a Nigerian refugee who has a Ph.D. in astronomy but finds work only as a handyman at the shelter. (He volunteers at the planetarium on his day off, but is fired even though he is not paid, because "the board wants your position reserved for a South African, not an immigrant"). Nthati Moshesh is riveting as the domestic worker, who is assaulted by her employer and then accused of theft, and whose son finds a surrogate father in the Nigerian (Eric Ebouaney, who played the title role in "Lumumba"). "We made it a point to cast all of the roles with South Africans," Bamford said after a screening. "There was a lot of interest from Hollywood in this screenplay, but they wanted to plug in American stars." He and his wife, Kay, were Hollywood screenwriters unable to tell the stories they wanted. "We moved to Cape Town for one year," Kay said, "and four years later we're still there. South Africa has problems, but it also has great people and great hope. It's an exciting place to live."

"Red Dust," also produced by Singh and Spring, stars the London-born Chiwetel Ejiofor as an anti-apartheid activist, now a member of Parliament. He returns to the rural area of his birth for the Truth and Reconciliation hearing of a white policeman (James Bartlett) who tortured him for a month and may have been responsible for the murder of a friend. Hilary Swank plays a white woman raised in the district, who immigrated to America but returns to act as his attorney.

"Red Dust" deals with a difficult reality: Both blacks and whites may have reasons why it is convenient for the truth to remain obscure. Does the policeman know more than he wants to admit? Did his prisoner crack under torture? The movie shows how the truth is liberating for all sides, clearing the future so the country can move on, instead of endlessly picking at old wounds, as in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Chechnya and Rwanda.

I wrote about the South African co-produced "Hotel Rwanda" in an earlier Toronto report. These films, like the urgent "Moolaade" from Senegal, announce that Africa is no longer a faraway location for exotic adventure stories, but a continent speaking for itself on the screen.

A few years ago when my wife and I were in Durban, Anant Singh showed us the storefront where he opened his first video store. He had a white friend who acted as the owner of record. He also illegally exhibited films that the apartheid government had banned for nonwhite audiences. "We showed them in people's houses," he said. "The word got around." Now he is South Africa's leading producer, and he owns a chain of multiplexes and video stores, which are all in his name.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Under the Bridge
Irena's Vow
Sweet Dreams
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas


comments powered by Disqus