dir: Gavin Hood
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Every year, when Oscar time rolls around, the category at the Academy Awards that I find the most bewildering and amusing is the category for Best Foreign Picture.
It presupposes at least two ideas: that the majority of the films in consideration for the rest of the categories are predominantly going to be American films (which they are), and that in the Foreign category, every other film produced by every other director from every other country apart from the US competes for the Great Golden Dildo.
You are already muttering under your breath “Who the fuck cares, the results at the Oscars matter to me about as much as the results of your last blood test.” And I agree, sure they don’t matter. But it interests me all the same.
The Academy, in the depths of its wisdom, has the sheer fucking gall to assert each year that it has sampled the delights of every other film put out by every country capable of producing them, and can select one to stand above and beyond all the others.
So, we can reasonably assume that the winner of this year’s Academy award for Best Foreign films, which was Tsotsi, was not only the best South African film to come out last year, but the best film produced by over 140 countries last year. Needless to say, the film would have to be fucking great. Absolutely phenomenal. To be better than the 600 or so flicks that came out last year, it would have to be so good that it encapsulates every aspect of the human condition in glowing Technicolor, has the greatest soundtrack of orgasm-inducing aural delights ever put to film, and performances so great audiences everywhere will be killing themselves afterwards because they know no other experience they ever enjoy, at least until next year’s Oscars, will ever come close or be as well acted.
Okay, maybe I’m going a bit overboard, but I just find the whole notion utterly ludicrous. Still, this was a very decent flick, and just to be even more absurd, I’m glad it won.
I remember seeing the ecstatic director, Gavin Hood, leap up onto the stage at the Awards, brandishing the golden statue upwards like he was giving the Black Power salute, screaming something like ‘Vive South Africa!’, probably in Afrikaans. It was the only bright spot in a long and boring wasteland punctuated only with a few moments of Jon Stewart-induced hilarity.
Tsotsi, based on a novel by Athol Fugard, is a pretty strong flick. I’ve never seen a flick from South Africa before, and didn’t even know they had much of an exportable film industry. But Tsotsi is something of a revelation, in the same manner that City of God put Brazilian film on the map, so to speak. That’s not to say it’s anywhere close to being the amphetamine-mainline-with-broken-glass masterpiece that City of God is, but it’s pretty damn strong all the same.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) starts off the film with the blank-eyed stare of a guy who just doesn’t give a fuck about anything. The name he is called is not his real name, being a slang term for thug. And what a thug he is. He and his band of less than merry men rob, beat and murder people for money to get them through their days. They live in the ‘township’, which is a shantytown comprising a million impoverished souls in the slums of Johannesburg.
Whereas Tsotsi is completely emotionally detached from the world around him, his gang is comprised of very different people. Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) is a good-natured but dim fellow who follows whoever leads. Boston (Mothusi Magano) is educated, and came from wealth, but ended up with the down-and-outs for reasons we are not privy to. Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) just loves to kill.
Within a few minutes of the film beginning, we see the lads at their work, spying out people with pay packets at the train station. Their modus operandi is to surround the guy in a busy carriage, threaten him with an icepick, and run off with the loot. Of course Butcher just itches to kill people for a thrill so he needs to complicate things.
Sure, they’re bastards, but there are degrees and levels of bastardry. Butcher is a psychopath, and unrepentant. Boston berates him for his lack of humanity, and his absolute lack of decency. Ranting at a guy who’s just murdered someone over a few dollars for lacking decency is kind of like taking John Wayne Gacy or Ivan Milat to task for not possessing appropriate table manners. Regardless, it is not Butcher who gets angry, but Tsotsi.
He’s not angry over the murder, but instead is prompted to go medieval on Boston’s arse for mentioning his parents. Tsotsi then proceeds to belt the ever-loving crap out of him. Too bloody right.
From there he launches on a one man mission to wreak more havoc on the world, and along this path he accidentally comes to be in charge of a baby. A widdle, tiny baby.
This is not Three Men and a Baby, or Look Who’s Talking, or even Kolya; films where arseholes become nice people because they gradually come to love a baby that they are in charge of, at least for a while. This is South Africa, Tsotsi is a violent thug, and every decision before and after the baby comes into his life (bar one crucial one) is wrong, so very wrong.
Tsotsi is a villain, but he is not beyond a genuine form of redemption. He does not instantly or even gradually become a better person because of looking after the needs of the child. His ways of looking after the kid are insane, and hopeless. Usually in films with this theme, the guardian of a baby starts off clueless as to how to look after a baby, but over time as the bond grows also learns how to tend to their needs.
Tsotsi starts off and ends up still knowing nothing about changing or feeding babies. His solution to these problems generally involve sticking a gun in someone’s face and getting them to do it. But the redemption he comes to is still valid: his path is to realise his needs are not always paramount. It comes down to a decision he must make, and it is through that decision that we ultimately are allowed to sympathise with his character and believe that he is not without hope or humanity.
It really is a remarkable performance from Presley Chweneyagae. Apart from dialogue, which he does fine with, it is a very physical performance, where much of what he needs to get across has to come through body language and facial expressions especially. Tsotsi is a complex character and very difficult to empathise with, and easily hated had not Presley put his heart and soul in the performance. I can say with utter conviction that at a crucial scene towards the end of the film, he alone ensured there was not a single dry eye in the cinema where I was watching the film.
As such it is necessary to say that there are bits of extreme violence in the film, but that it is not a violent film overall. Nor is it an action film by any stretch of the imagination. It is however a window into a life lived by many in South Africa. It does not excuse the criminal, nor does it blame poverty or apartheid for the lives these people lead. Their crimes are not crimes of necessity. Plenty of other people living in the townships are shown eking out meagre but honest existences, also making time for their families, their friends and for moments of simple beauty. Tsotsi and his gang have come to where they are for different reasons, but clearly make their bad choices because they see it as the easiest course of action.
No, we’re certainly not meant to excuse Tsotsi and his gang’s actions. Their crimes, as well, are usually visited upon people just like themselves, with as much or as little to lose. There’s no racial component to the story, subtext or otherwise, which might surprise someone coming to South African film for the first time. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of racial complexity that arise, such as when two police officers, one white, the other black, deal with the public. But you’d be mistaken if you thought the flick had anything to do with apartheid or the struggle of the oppressed or anything equally dull.
Tsotsi is who he is because of his life, because of where he grew up, which we see in a couple of scenes of aching poignancy. To understand a character is not the same as excusing the character’s actions. But I at least cared about him and where he was ultimately going.
I have to say that I loved this film. It’s tightly directed, the use of language is strange and interesting, the soundtrack of South African hip hop works very well in its context, and the murky filters and appropriate editing all combine to make the places depicted live up on the cinema screen. Like everywhere else, Johannesburg has locations of both beauty and ugliness, and we get to spend time at the places where you’d figure it’d be most appropriate.
I look forward to seeing more about this country through its films, and I hope they match and eventually exceed the level set by Tsotsi.
8 times I would not be sure what kind of person I’d have become if I’d grown up living in a concrete pipe out of 10
“Do you know what decency is? I bet you don’t even know how to spell it.” – Boston, Tsotsi.