This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film , Tsotsi, marks a revolution for “third-world” filmmaking. It contradicts the usual standards to which such films are held. This memorable film, made and set in post-apartheid South Africa is proof of the growing accessibility of the film culture. Director Gavin Hood has produced a piece bound to go down in history. Immediately, the viewer is struck by the film’s stunning visuals. The film is tight; well edited, with production design and cinematography (by Lance Gewer) as good if not better than most current mainstream films. Even more interesting are the parallels between this victory of South African cinema and other humanist, realist films that were pioneers of previous stylistic revolutions.
Tsotsi, for whom the movie is named, is not the hero of classical cinema. Although he is our protaganist, he is a gangster in the slums, with his name literally meaning “thug.” Hood chooses to illustrate this violent nature right away. He stabs a man on a crowded subway and when questioned by a fellow gang-member about decency, attacks his friend as well. We know that the man we are following is a villain and criminal, something that was introduced mostly during the French New Wave. Previously, classic filmmakers in Hollywood kept the idea of “good guy vs. bad guy” black and white. Truffaut, with Four Hundred Blows and Godard’s Breathless, helped blur this boundary. Sometimes the good guy is not always good, he is human and possesses evils.
To pull in the audience, so that we will join Tsotsi on his six-day journey, Hood uses strategies similar to those previous revolutionaries. As Tsotsi flees the shantytown and bar he attacks his friend in, Hood uses flashbacks to Tsotsi’s unfortunate childhood, forcing the audience’s sympathy. He humanizes Tsotsi, giving a realistic scenario for how he has become the violent man he is. Children have classically been used in neo-realist cinema to gain the audience’s sympathy. The innocence of young Tsotsi, helps us to excuse his behavior and allows for an emotional connection with the audience.
Gavin Hood follows his predecessor’s in selecting a non-actor for the leading role. Presley Chweneyagae truly shines as Tsotsi and his true to life, gritty acting reinforces the realist feel. One of the greatest aspects of this film is how not-staged it feels. It is not as much a documentary as The Battle of Algiers by any means, but compared to other South African based films, such as The Power of One, there is a true authenticity. The viewer can grasp that the filmmaker and actor’s are familiar with the lives being depicted. It is an incredible, crazy story, but we believe it and believe Tsotsi. Chweneyagae is the next ingredient to engaging the viewer. His realism lets us empathize with him. He has motives universally familiar to viewers and a resulting psyche that people can relate to. Enhanced by Gewer’s cinematic imagery, we sense Tsotsi’s loneliness and his inherent search for family and love.
Tsotsi’s desperate soul leads him to holding a wealthy black woman at gunpoint and stealing her Mercedes. She fights back and he shoots her, drives off and eventually crashes the car. He is simply an angry young man with nothing to lose. However, after crashing the car he makes the life-changing discovery that he has kidnapped the woman’s infant. We reach the film’s inciting moment when he decides to bring the crying baby back to his shack in a shopping bag.
After this, the violent and desperate mood of the film slows down. Tsotsi suddenly has a purpose and responsibility in his life and he has begun on the road to redemption. He is still learning and we follow him as he weens himself from the violent life he knows. He immediately tries to care for the child. Hood appeals to the audience finally giving us some comedy as he tries to appease the crying baby, while attempting to uphold his thug facade. Tsotsi is still pretty clueless however and leaves the child as he goes to search for some meaning his life.
Hood makes some interesting choices in the film in terms of what he wants to show the audience. He decidedly includes a scene in which Tsotsi follows a homeless cripple, just to hold him at gunpoint and ask him why he keeps on living. The cinematography here is captivating. The homeless man is, like him, alone and broken. Tsotsi is more interested however, because he reminds him of a dog he had as a child. Hood is trying to show us that when we began watching this film it opened a can of worms, reconnecting Tsotsi with his youth. He himself is similar to the child he has found, he is trying to give it the care he never received. Tsotsi could easily kill this homeless man, but does not, reassuring a hopeful audience that his metamorphosis has begun.
Hood also includes small moments and scenes with large impacts. For instance a detail such as the Mercedes the morning after Tsotsi has crashed it. In the few hours it has been abandoned the car has already been completely stripped, subtly commenting on the reality we are in. Most memorable, however, is a shot of the child after Tsotsi has returned from his conversation with the homeless man. When he goes back to the child it is covered in black ants. This is jarring considering it is something realistic but also something disturbing that many people would never see. This innocent, defenseless baby, something that has always been a utilized symbol in cinema, is defaced by bugs. This is when the audience loses any illusion that Tsotsi can care for this child. From here on we know that the baby will return to his family eventually, it is reaching this point that is the exciting, unfathomable part. Tsotsi attempts to raise the baby better by holding a young nursing mother hostage and making her feed his found child. However, we watch him transform and eventually realize that returning the boy is the right thing to do.
The film’s climax is extremely emotional. Presley Chweneyagae is superb, returning the boy that he has learned to love and is almost a son to him, with tears streaming down his face. He cooperates willingly with the family and the police that have been tracking him. Hood does a remarkable job of having us relate and empathize with every character. There is an intense glow of humanity and recognizable motivation. Tsotsi’s finale is tragic irony. The man Tsotsi, deserves to be punished and rehabilitated for his crimes and violence. However, the baby and journey have taught and changed Tsotsi by the final scene, he has been redeemed and gone through enough loss that prison is unnecessary. But, Hood is distinct in his choice to have Tsotsi pay for his crimes and not be a magical protagonist above the natures of consequence.
This film foreshadows the growth of South African and all third-world cinema. Whether or not Gavin Hood has chosen to make a neo-realist, humanist film he has definitely succeeded. Studying patterns of other countries, this seems to be a major step before entering the mainstream film world. Hood has proven his country’s capabilities and has empowered his contemporaries while raising the bar. I found this film much more impressive than American films I have recently seen. I owe this to the importance of the work in terms of content and for the country it is being made. It strikes me as a truly personal film for the nation it is from and has lots of heart. The risks it takes are impressive and it offers fresh point of view and an unfamiliar story.