Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning Tsotsi puts South African cinema on the map

By Brian White

Tsotsi opens with a beautiful, expansive shot of the skyline in a Johannesburg slum at sunset. Heat and tension hang as heavy as the smog in the air as the film transitions to a closed, stuffy room. A man looks out the window as a king might survey his corrupt, dilapidated kingdom. “What’re we going to do tonight, Tsotsi?” another man asks.

Tsotsi turns quickly from the window, and a powerful rhythm that shakes the walls of the theater starts up. From that moment on, Tsotsi never lets go of its audience, carrying them through a powerful tale of crime, redemption, despair, and hope.

Tsotsi, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, tells the story of a young man who has taken on the name Tsotsi (literally meaning “gangster”). One night, he steals a car from a wealthy Johannesburg suburbanite and, to his horror, finds a baby crying in the backseat. But instead of running away, he takes the infant in and attempts to care for it in a quest for redemption. The film’s win was quite an achievement, considering the small size of South Africa’s film industry. This recognition is due to one man: director Gavin Hood.

The film is actually based on a book of the same name, written by author Athol Fugard in 1980. For years, Hollywood had been trying to convince Fugard to allow a movie adaptation of his story, which he staunchly refused. But Hood, a native of Johannesburg, penned a script that so impressed Fugard that the author enthusiastically granted his approval.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Gavin Hood, and it was quite an experience. In a 20-minute interview, I barely got in four questions, so energetic and enthusiastic was Hood.

“I wanted to make a movie that said to : Join me on this ride. You start them on a ride, then maybe stop and point out some stuff.” To Hood, Tsotsi’s fast, lively pace was his first priority. A film that preaches without entertaining would be anathema to this vigorous South African.

“The movies need to be as visual as possible. People don’t want to be bored or preached at; they want to be entertained, but they also want to think.” That’s why Hood, ever conscious of the visual impact of a film, tried to keep the subtitles to a minimum. In his words, “Subtitles need to be short and poetic.” Not to say that Tsotsi is all rhythm and no substance. It is an entertaining film with a powerful conscience and social commentary. The end result is a movie that is as energetic as it is tragic and touching.

This is all made possible by a solid—and relatively unheard-of—cast. Newcomer Presley Chweneyagae displays an astonishing and, at times, outright shocking depth in his role as Tsotsi. Chweneyagae, whose only prior experience was in theater, does an impressive job of transitioning from the boisterous Shakespearean stage to the much more controlled minuteness of film. As Hood says, “Theater is about words; film is very much about moments between words and action.”

Tsotsi finds a foil in Miriam, a young single mother played by Terry Pheto. Tsotsi, finding it nearly impossible to care for the baby, forces Miriam at gunpoint to nurse the child. Pheto’s performance is just as powerful, if not more so, than Chweneyagae’s, and their interactions are some of the most bittersweet and sublime of the movie. Pheto’s beautiful, smooth features and colorful house contrast perfectly with Chweneyagae’s hard expressions and dark demeanor. In their interaction, we see the family life that might have been, the promising future that might have awaited a less impulsive and hardened Tsotsi. Tsotsi’s pistol and angry attitude seem painfully out of place in Miriam’s hovel.

When I asked Hood if there was any scene he was particularly proud of, he enthusiastically described the final scene between Miriam and Tsotsi. The scene perfectly embodies everything Hood seems to have been seeking to create when he spoke of the “moments between words and action.” Barely a word is spoken between the characters, but the scene, with its close and intimate shots, is the most moving of the film. Its creation must have taken a careful genius. “Had the performance been melodramatic or too cool, it could have been awful,” said Hood. “We had to walk a fine line between melodrama and sensitivity.” Indeed, up to and including the silent yet powerful final scene, Tsotsi masterfully walks that line.

The movie does have a few flaws, though. Chweneyagae’s inexperience sometimes shows, and until you actually see him coolly participate in a man’s murder, it’s a little hard to buy into his harshness. Many of the scenes involving the Johannesburg family from whom Tsotsi stole the baby are a bit overwrought. This serves an almost ironic purpose, however, contrasting the plush and almost theatrical lives of the suburbanites with the harsh and painfully real lives of Tsotsi and his gang. None of these flaws are particularly distracting, and all are more than made up for by the overall power of the film.

Anyone who sees this movie will find themselves transported to a world where lives depend on the flick of a switchblade or the roar of a pistol. It is a place where characters confront each other in conditions which are, in the words of Gavin Hood, “universal, but wonderfully unique.”