|Review by By Ogova Ondego
Published November 15, 2007
The killing of reggae musician Lucky Dube in Johannesburg in October 2007 appeared to be the case of life reflecting a South African film made two years earlier; TSOTSI. If you enjoy watching a film that glorifies social aberrations and caricatures or pokes fun at law enforcement to the backdrop of throbbing popular township kwaito music, then TSOTSI, that won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2006, is the film for you. OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Though highly praised, TSOTSI-that could as well be titled A Thug and a Baby-has also received some bad press around the world with some critics dismissing it as ‘neither noble nor worthy of all the praise and awards it’s received’.
When I first watched this film in the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town in November 2005, its unacceptably high level of violence repulsed me just like City of God, another film full of violence, had done a year earlier. Whereas TSOTSI is set in Soweto on the outskirts of South Africa’s bustling commercial capital, Johannesburg, CITY OF GOD takes place in a slum in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The title character, Tsotsi (meaning thug or gangster in Tsotsi-Taal street language), is a cold-hearted and callous criminal who stabs a man in a train with an ice pick to steal his wallet, batters a fellow gangster who questions his morality, and wrenches a BMW vehicle from a woman he casually shoots before driving off.
From these heinous acts, it is difficult to warm up to such a soulless character. But then surprises abound in life. Hence the numerous awards Tsotsi has won. I submit that many of these are spawned by South Africa’s enviable lobbying skills than by its artistry.
This assertion is given credence by a Press Statement from the official Cape Town World Cinema Festival (CTWCF) publicists, Thompson n Team (TNT), in 2005 that said director “Hood was not in Cape Town because he had just embarked on the long, arduous 2006 Oscar-nomination lobby in Hollywood, beginning with a screening of Tsotsi for the Foreign Press Association.”
At the time, this South African-UK co-production had won Standard Life Audience and UK Film Council’s Best New British Feature Film awards at the 59th Edinburgh International Film Festival, and People’s Choice award at Toronto Film Festival.
Consequently, South African big wigs had no doubt that Tsotsi would be declared Best Feature Film at CTWCF in 2005. It did not. The closest it came to a CTWCF award was being declared Best South African Film by South African Critics for what they described as ‘sublime filmmaking that utterly captivates its audience’.
Expectations for victory on home soil had been fueled by TSOTSI nabbing the American Film Institute (AFI) Audience Prize and news of a breakthrough 400-print release in the USA in February 2006.
Another consolation for TSOTSI was that lead player Presley Chweneyagae scooped Best Actor award with the jury praising Chweneyagae’s ‘ability to draw his audience into the soul of a despised character.’
South African poet Wally Serote, who headed the jury, said Chweneyagae “brought an impressive mix of compassion, rage and naiveté to his performance.” Accordingly, the jury added, “We believe he has a bright future in South African cinema.”
In April 2006 during the African Film Summit in Pretoria, South Africa, Paris-based filmmaker Rahmatou Keita from Niger, earned the ire of the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) helmer Eddie Mbalo when she dared say publicly that TSOTSI is not the best film that Africa can produce its winning an Oscar two months earlier notwithstanding. The microphone was quickly snatched from her and she was hastily led away from the podium at the CSIR International Convention Centre by none other than Mbalo who was chairing the session!
To get on stage, she had said she wanted to read ‘A love letter to Africa’, something the chair liked.
Later, African Movie Academy Awards founder, Peace Anyiam-Fiberesima of Nigeria, dismissed TSOTSI as not being an African but American movie living up to Hollywood sensibilities. She said she found the category ‘Best Foreign Language’ patronising and that it should be done away with. She says she founded AMAA in 2005 to recognise and reward African films.
But what is TSOTSI about?
An adaptation of the only novel ever written by South African playwright Athol Fugard by writer/actor/director Gavin Hood, this is the story of Tsotsi, a ruthless Soweto gang leader who raised himself as an AIDS orphan and believes he owes no one anything. He takes whatever he wants from any one, doling out violence generously on the way.
After an argument with a fellow gang member over his heartlessness and bent on escape, he car-jacks a luxury car from a woman at gunpoint only to later discover a baby in the back seat. It is from this baby that he later rediscovers his humanity, or so the film tells the viewer.
“Although there is violence in the film,”writer and director Gavin Hood says of the US$3-million budget film, “Tsotsi is about a street thug rediscovering his humanity and compassion.”
Hood says it was a challenge adapting it for screen being an account of an internal psychological struggle of a black gangster recalling his painful past and also being a period piece set in the 1960s.
According to Hood whose film directing credits include THE STOREKEEPER (1998), A REASONABLE MAN (1999) and W PUSTYNI W PUSZCZY (In Desert And Wilderness, 2001), translating Fugard’s themes of redemption, compassion, and the rediscovery of one’s humanity, and monologues going on in Tsotsi’s head into a visual medium was not easy. Besides the technical challenges, keeping Fugard’s style would have called for a much higher budget than that provided by South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and NFVF ational Film and United Kingdom’s UK Film and TV Production Company.
So Hood sets his TSOTSI in contemporary Soweto instead of the Sophiatown that was razed by the Apartheid regime 50 years ago.
He also makes Tsotsi the thug an AIDS orphan and victim of a violent father whereas Fugard’s Tsotsi is an orphan after his parents are eliminated by the Apartheid government.
After witnessing Tsotsi’s callousness in stabbing a man to death, beating a colleague to pulp and shooting the woman from whom he stole the get-away car, it is almost inconceivable how this gangster without a heart could take the baby he found in the vehicle with him. From where has he derived pity, mercy, compassion and benevolence so suddenly?
One would expect a real criminal to just dump the baby in the vehicle or on the side of the road and flee. But then, perhaps giving the story a surprising twist from the norm makes for a better film?
Upon getting to his hovel he tries to care for the baby on his own, using old newspapers as napkins, and forcing the child to eat adult food. When this fails, he forces a single young mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto) to breast-feed the baby at gunpoint.
As time passes and as Tsotsi and Miriam get closer, the latter is driven by the desire to return the baby to its parents.
Director Hood, who sees TSOTSI as about the rich and the poor in post-Apartheid South Africa, says the baby is Tsotsi’s reason for redemption and how he rediscovers his humanity and compassion.
Hood tells Screen Africa magazine, “In the book Tsotsi’s emotional journey is more about re-discovering the past. So I created the plotline of returning the baby to its parents. I wanted to engage the audience in a more emotional way, because in the book you’re more like an observer. Tsotsi is a nasty character, so the trick is to make the audience care for him and realize that anyone of us could have been born into his situation in life.”
TSOTSI is well directed, juxtaposing wide shots with close ups to emphasise the loneliness of characters and to draw viewers into the characters. The cinematography is heightened with dramatic lighting.
“I see this film as about the spaces between people and the way we look at each other. The baby is the ultimate helpless victim. Because Tsotsi is a gangster, he doesn’t tolerate people looking him in the eye. But the baby keeps staring at him and that is when his heart begins to open up,” Hood tells Screen Africa.
Were it not for the flashbacks about young Tsotsi (played by Benny Moshe)’s dying mother and cruel father that Hood employs, one could not have explained Tsotsi’s apparently unmotivated transformation. Even then, it is still difficult to accept the simplistic explanation that if one is brutalised in childhood one turns out violent in adulthood.
TSOTSI is authentic. The main characters who are unschooled low-life speak Tsotsi-Taal (a language that combines English, Afrikaans and various South African vernaculars) and listen to Kwaito township sound as opposed to the soft R & B on the car radio of the middle class.
TSOTSI could also pass for an indictment of the South African society in which capitalism and affluence have numbed the senses of the haves to the cry of the have-nots; a society in which AIDS orphans are neglected and the glitter of Johannesburg–the place of gold–does not acknowledge the existence of the darkness of Soweto. And this indictment could pass for any modern African city-Windhoek, Kinshasa, Nairobi, Lagos, Cairo-in which the chasm between the rich and the poor is widening daily.
The TSOTSI cast includes Presley Chweneyagae, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Terry Pheto, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Nonthuthu Sibisi, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Benny Moshe, Thembi Nyandeni, Israel Makoe, and Sindi Shambule.
TSOTSI is produced by Paul Raleigh’s Moviworld (South Africa) and Peter Fudakowski’s UK Film & TV Production Company.