Films about Africa are usually much too hard-hitting to be able to strike a chord with mainstream audiences and with good reason: The picture of poverty that needs to be painted is so impossibly gruesome that viewers shy away. Hollywood has struggled with this in the past (Meryl Streep, Stephen Dorff et al) but for one of the first times, a South African film tackles the subject head on. Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” has had tremendous success at film festivals around the world and though a cinema release was limited, it seems people have sat up and taken notice. Aside from it’s obvious qualities in both acting and direction, perhaps part of its success can be attributed to the fact that it presents a somewhat hopeful picture, that despite the violence, disease and impoverishment, there are people who may be able to make a difference.
Very much inspired by both the tone and style of Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Gavin Hood’s film tells of young Soweto gang leader, Tsotsi (meaning “thug” in the language of the townships) who, angry and confused after a confrontation with a friend hijacks a car, unaware of the baby on the back seat. After initial reluctance and coupled with complete helplessness the young man, played by Presley Chweneyagae, takes the young child with him, and looks after it in the harshness of the South African slums. With the threat of execution he attains the help of young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who has a child of her own and eventually cares for the baby on her own. This may not last however as both the police and the baby’s rich parents are after the young criminal. In a world too cruel to be believed by western eyes (yet every inch true, make no mistake), Tsotsi’s efforts are out of place but act as a fragment of hope for a society mired in poverty, lawlessness and crime. At the same time, the film is very much a desperate plea for help for people without any sort of direction or perspective, as Hood highlights through some of the supporting characters, a failed teacher student (Mothusi Magano) and a victim of the gold mines, now crippled and trapped in a wheelchair. The mixture of languages spoken by the characters – known as Tsotsitaal, thug language – adds a touch of odd familiarity and contributes to the film’s symbolism to a certain extent portraying people without identity or cultural heritage, never mind a chance of escape or a future.
The film relies on Chweneyagae’s portrayal of Tsotsi and the young actor commands his debut film with incredible power and depth. His character is one of few words and this yields a wholly different level of communication with the performer and the audience. The emotional connection most viewers will make is intense and although the film’s open ended nature does not permit a payoff, this is very much to the advantage rather than the detriment of the film. Two more conclusive endings were filmed but were both dropped by Hood in the edit (they are available as a DVD extra however) and though neither is very optimistic, to change anything from the final cut would probably take away from the emotional journey Tsotsi has gone through. Quite rightly walking away with the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2005, “Tsotsi” does give a more hopeful impression than Meirelles’ slum-epic though it cannot equal it in terms of innovation and pure cinematic style. And though entirely different from “Distric 9,” “Tsotsi” too present a nation that is still caught up in the long shadow of its apartheid history. An awareness campaign launched in combination with the film and presented on some of the posters reminds of the figures that do not make for easy reading: South Africa reports over 18,000 murders per annum.
Though some original score does feature, selling point for the soundtrack were several songs performed by the South African musician Bonginkosi Dlamini, better known as Zola, who also plays a small part in the film. His merging of Kwaito and Hip-Hop are in keeping with many of the gangster aspects of the storyline, portraying “Tsotsi” at his most ruthless and cruel. To musically colour the rest of the screen-time and bundled into a second album is the original score material by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker and featuring vocals by Vusi Mahlasela. The score is minimalist and, vocals aside not particularly African. Going almost completely unnoticed in the film (neither does the film require a lot of music), its album presentation is enjoyable with cues like “On the Tracks” and “Miriam Feeds Baby.” These serve as the main ideas in the score, the first for Tsotsi the second for the much more hopeful character of Miriam. Score fans looking for something to represent the African continent may do better with something like James Newton Howard’s excellent “Blood Diamond” or Hans Zimmer’s “The Power of One” however.
With “Tsotsi” Gavin Hood has made the leap to respected director and has been able to launch a Hollywood career though none of his follow-up works have been able to come close. The film presents terrible realities and does not make for easy viewing but neither is it entirely bleak in its outlook. Highly recommended.
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