“Yellow Card” is an excellent drama from Zimbabwe that puts forth difficult challenges concerning the question of sexual responsibility among teenagers. While the film’s depiction of sexually active teens may seem a little conservative by American standards, director John Riber nonetheless zeroes in on tough issues and often brutal circumstances that cross cultural boundaries.
Central to “Yellow Card” is Tiyane (played by a very appealing Leroy Gopal), a 17-year-old from a working class family in the capital of Harare. Tiyane is unusually gifted in soccer and has attracted media and professional attention for his aggressive field work in a minor league soccer team. While Tiyane’s disabled father would prefer to see him finish his senior year in school, Tiyane dreams of taking his athletic prowess beyond his country, with the ultimate dream of playing for England’s celebrated Manchester United team.
Unfortunately for Tiyane, affairs of the heart are tossing up obstacles in his sprint. He falls in love with Juliet, a mixed-raced girl from an upper class family which is economic eons from Tiyane’s grittier landscape. Their relation blossoms despite the polite indifference from Juliet’s family and the outright hostility of Juliet’s classmates. However, things go awry when Tiyane is confronted with an unexpected surprise from his recent past: his former girlfriend Linda, whom he impregnated and who was expelled from school for her unwed motherhood, returns without warning and dumps their baby on Tiyane’s doorstep. Linda takes off to find a new life for herself and Tiyane is suddenly saddled with premature fatherhood, which was not in his game plan.
Despite the touchy subject matter, as well as an equally rough subplot regarding a class clown who finds himself hospitalized with HIV, “Yellow Card” never falls into a shrill or preachy mode. There are no big, heavy melodramatic moments or overplayed theatrics, which would probably find their way on to the screen if this was an American production. Nor does the film find itself stuck in a sticky-sugar treatment that seems to be in favor with moral-heavy films from theatrical or television channels. Instead, the difficult and provocative storylines unfold with maturity, dignity and occasional pain, and the audience is genuinely kept on edge wondering how the characters can work out their situations. Despite the consequential nature of unsafe sex which rules here, there is no vulgarity and the film’s romantic interludes are genuinely heartfelt and moving.
“Yellow Card” will also be of interest to anyone who has followed the tragic news from Zimbabwe during the past year. While the film does not overtly address the question of Zimbabwean politics (the closest reference is a framed picture of President Robert Mugabe in a principal’s office), “Yellow Card” nonetheless brings to subtle play trenchant issues of racial and economic struggle which have torn that country apart in recent months. When a supermarket sequence includes commentary that a purchase should made immediately before prices go up or when the predominantly white preppy-thugs at Juliet’s school gang up on Tiyane for daring to crash their dance, it becomes fairly obvious that this film takes place in a land of major socio-economic woes. In terms of modes of transportation, clothing, music and language, it seems as if there are parallel cultures in unequal and uneasy occupation of the same land.
“Yellow Card” is a beautifully photographed and edited production and the film’s soundtrack is laced with a rich mix of traditional folk and contemporary Afro-pop music. The film’s weak point, surprisingly, are the soccer games where Tiyane shines; director Riber’s camera becomes unusually sluggish when the ball is in motion and the film never truly captures the passion and drama that create the peerless thrill in the sport. However, these athletic interludes are brief and never stop the flow of this worthwhile and well-played drama.