Dir. Gavin Hood, UK/South Africa, 2005, 94mins
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe,
Review by Hyan Thiboutot
Gavin Hood has taken Athol Fugard's 1960 novel and re-shaped it for a post-Apartheid South Africa, where racial divides have largely been replaced by schisms of class. In a scant 90 minutes, Hood turns a reprehensible monster into a sympathetic character. Tsotsi is an emotionally honest tale of redemption that never forgets there are consequences for bad acts. The film is refreshingly light on sentimentality.
Tsotsi charts one week in the life of Tsotsi (Presley Chwenayagae) leader of a small youthful gang from the slums of Johannesburg. Tsotsi highjacks a car and discovers a baby in the backseat. He decides to raise the boy and enlists the help of Miriam (Terry Pheto), at gunpoint, to act as a wet nurse for "David." Gradually, this experiences forces Tsotsi to face his demons and make amends.
This low budget English/South African co-production is directed by relative newcomer Gavin Hood. Hood is doing for Johannesburg what Fernando Meirelles did for Rio de Janeiro in City of God. The thumping rhythms of 'Kwaito' music, a type of South African hip-hop, capture the bustling energy of the corrugated-metal shantytowns.
Tsotsi offers images of startling power. The film's initial robbery and murder is presented with chilling simplicity. This is also seen in the scene where dispossessed individuals huddle together for warmth in unburied concrete pipes during a downpour. Tsotsi is beautifully shot by also relative newcomer cinematographer Lance Gewer, disregarding frantic camerawork for steady, composed cinematography. The barren outskirts of the city with rambling orphans and dusty landscape is not dissimilar to the social exclusion depicted by Italian neo-realist master Pier Paolo Passolini in Mamma Roma and Accatone.
The acting, by a cast of mostly unknowns, is perfect. Newcomer Presley Chwenayagae delivers a solid, sympathetic performance. Even though his character starts out as a complete monster, you end up rooting for him. He's as compact as Al Pacino's Tony Montana and just as lethal. Tsotsi doesn't traffic in cheap thrills. Gavin Hood wrings tears with sincerity, not cynicism.
After graduating with a degree in law in South Africa, writer/director Gavin Hood headed to the US to study screenwriting and directing at the University of California in LA. In 1993, he won a Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award for his first screenplay A Reasonable Man. Judges included Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Kennedy.
He returned to South Africa where he got his first writing and directing work making educational dramas for the new Department of Health, which was just beginning to feel the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For his work in educational television, Gavin won one Artes Award (a South African Emmy) and was nominated for another.
Gavin's low budget feature debut, A Reasonable Man, won Best Actor, Best Screenwriter and Best Director at the All Africa Film Awards in 2001, Gavin. At the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, Gavin was named by Variety as one of their Ten Directors To Watch. In 2003, UK based producer Peter Fudakowski approached Gavin to write Tsotsi.
Tsotsi is the only novel ever written by the prolific South African-born playwright Athol Fugard. Written in the early 1960s, it remained unpublished until 1980, by which time he had become a big international success. 'My real territory as a dramatist is the world of secrets with their powerful effect on human behaviour and the trauma of their revelation,' says Fugard. 'They are the dynamos that generate all the significant action in my plays.'
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