A gritty story of redemption and hope in a ramshackle urban township is the South African entry for this year's Academy Awards and one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film. Alan Silverman spoke with writer-director Gavin Hood for this look at Tsotsi.
The Johannesburg skyline twinkles and teases in the distance, but in the dim light of the township, street gangs rule the night. The most notorious of the gangsters is barely a teenager who grew up on these streets and if he has to kill to steal a wallet, that's what he will do. His real name is hidden in a past he will not reveal, so he is known simply as Tsotsi, which means thug or gangster.
One rainy night after a particularly deadly confrontation with members of his own gang, "Tsotsi" runs from the township and finds himself in a wealthy suburb where he spies a woman in a luxury automobile struggling to open her security gate. Tsotsi steals the car at gunpoint, shooting the woman when she desperately tries to stop him. Speeding away, he loses control of the car and crashes into a ditch. It is only then that he hears the cries from the back seat. The woman's infant is there, still securely in his child seat. Panicked, Tsotsi runs from the scene ... and then he returns, grabs the baby and runs back to his shack in the township. What happens next taps into a sense of responsibility and human decency that Tsotsi never knew was deep within him.
Tsotsi is adapted from the only novel published by renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard who, in a note to the producer, calls it "far and away the best film that has been made" from his writings and Fugard goes on to predict "it will rank as one of the best films ever to come out of South Africa." That praise is most welcome to Gavin Hood, the British-born, South Africa-raised, American-educated filmmaker who adapted and directed the film ... especially because Hood chose to update the story to contemporary South Africa.
"The novel Tsotsi has been around since the 1980's although it was actually written by Athol in the 1960's and set in the late '50's," explains Hood. "The thing with the Tsotsi story is it is very much, in both cases, it is clearly set in a very defined political and social time; but the character himself tries to deny the time that he's living in. In the past the political milieu he existed in is clearly the world of apartheid, the world of political repression. In updating it, you have to ask 'what is the context in which he survives now?' Well, the great crisis that we're struggling with right now is the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Now the film is not about that, but it's very much the world from which he comes. He's an AIDS orphan. In the original story he's an orphan as a result of politics. So in both cases it's a coming-of-age story and an extraordinary story of dignity and redemption.
The story is told in Tsotsi-tal, the hybrid language of the South African township street gangsters. In one scene, one of Tsotsi's gang members explains to a rival thug that "Tsotsi never went to school. (He) doesn't understand decency." Then he asks the rival: "Do you know about that, Fela? decency? Can you even spell it?"
Hood says the story reflects the modern reality that in many urban communities around the world, discrimination today is less about race and more about economic status.
Highlighting the paradox, Hood fills the Tsotsi soundtrack with the energetic Kwaito music that has spread from the black townships to nationwide popularity in South Africa.
"I think Kwaito has become such a powerful sound of the townships that it was important to have that sort of sound in the movie," he said. "It also gives the film a drive and energy and, dare one say, a certain entertainment level. The music drives the film. The one thing I didn't want to do was a sort of slow, worthy piece. I wanted the film to have energy and pace and I think it does. It is 90 minutes and the story moves and the music, in many places, really helps that movement."
Particularly satisfying to Hood, however, is the international acclaim for Tsotsi which has won audience awards at festivals from Edinburgh to Toronto and Los Angeles, taken the top jury prize at the American Pan-African Film Festival and, of course, there's the Oscar race. Hood believes it's a combination of the quality of work in the film and the universal appeal of its story:
"I think that the themes of redemption, forgiveness, exploring your own identity, trying to become a self-aware person instead of just hiding behind some mask of either anger or shyness or whatever it is ... these themes of redemption and forgiveness and so on are universal and timeless," he said.
Gavin Hood, writer and director of Tsotsi which stars South African stage actor Presley Cheneyagae in the title role. The cast also features Kwaito music star Zola as a rival gangster; and Terry Pheto plays Miriam, a young township mother who helps Tsotsi care for the baby and figure out the right thing to do.