IN THIS WORLD… REDEMPTION COMES JUST ONCE.
The story surrounding this film is predictable. As it premiered in many countries outside South Africa, the reviews were favorable. Its story looks like it was made for the Academy Awards and the film did indeed end up with the Oscar even though several other foreign language films were more appreciated by most critics. And then the director found the gates to Hollywood wide-open and he took the chance to make films with higher budgets and less interesting stories. We know this turn of events from many similar experiences. However, the film itself, Tsotsi, is well worth a look.
The story takes place in the Soweto slums just outside Johannesburg. We are introduced to David (Presley Chweneyagae) who has grown up in the slum after escaping from his abusive father as a child. David, who goes by the name Tsotsi (meaning “thug”), now leads a gang of young men who have no qualms about committing murder just to earn a few rand. After one such incident, Tsotsi’s leadership is challenged by one of the gang members who feels sick about the killing. They fight and Tsotsi angrily walks away from his friends. When he subsequently tries to steal a car from a woman, she makes a move and Tsotsi shoots her in the stomach.
He drives off and is startled to discover that there’s a baby in the car. Having no clue how to deal with the baby, he forces Miriam (Terry Pheto), a young neighbor, to breast-feed the kid. In the meantime, the woman Tsotsi shot is recovering in a hospital and helps the police with a sketch of the kidnapper’s face… and Tsotsi’s gang is being courted by a rival gangster (Zola).
Told with a big heart
When we first meet Tsotsi there is nothing likable about him. He is simply put a parasite with psychopathic tendencies. But things change as the story progresses and it is a testament to Chweneyagae’s acting abilities that we believe in such an unlikely turn of events as this redemption of a cold-blooded gangster; his face looks dead at first, but it slowly begins to come alive step by step. The film has other impressive performances, especially one by Kenneth Nkosi as Aap, the gang’s “simplest” member, an overgrown child who remains loyal to his friends. The story is far from remarkable, but director Gavin Hood tells it with great energy and a big heart.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the portrayal of the Soweto slum. Appropriately enough, the soundtrack is full of Kwaito music, a genre that emerged in Johannesburg at the time of apartheid’s demise. One of its forefigures is Zola who contributes several energetic songs on the soundtrack. Cinematographer Lance Gewer makes the sordid place Tsotsi calls home look beautiful, bathing in golden sunshine, but the poverty of it is also contrasted with the wealth that some black South Africans have worked hard to attain.
Some in the audience will be irritated to recognize the predictability and harmlessness of this film as traits the Academy tends to favor. But there is something irresistible about that gorgeous shot where Tsotsi looks out over his sun-drenched home with the baby in his hands as the instrumental score rises to stirring heights. If I didn’t fall for that, I wouldn’t love films.
Tsotsi 2005-South Africa-Britain. 94 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Peter Fudakowski. Written and directed by Gavin Hood. Novel: Athol Fugard. Cinematography: Lance Gewer. Cast: Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi), Terry Pheto (Miriam), Kenneth Nkosi (Aap), Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film.
Last word: “The people in the shantytowns were absolutely amazing to us. Obviously the crew were saying, ‘Will it be OK?’ Some of our actors came from the shantytowns and some didn’t – one from the shantytowns is an honours graduate in drama but I think he was more nervous about shooting there than I was. Our lead actor, Presley Chweneyagae, his mum is actually a police officer – although she works in a pretty tough area. The funny thing is people say to me, ‘What were they like?’ The truth about people at every economic level of life is you get those who are kind and who are not, those who are greedy, whether they be rich or poor. That’s a common thread through humanity on any street you go to.” (Hood, BBC)