Dir: Gavin Hood. UK-S Af.2005. 94mins.
Touched by the kind ofdynamism that also marked City Of God, Tsotsi brings a fresh energy tofamiliar themes of crime and redemption. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, itoffers an unflinching portrait of post-apartheid South Africa; the lawlessshanty towns and lives bereft of hope. It also manages to look beyond thedespair to tell an arresting human story of one young man's journey towards thepossibility of change.
Critical support shouldhelp position this as an essential festival item with real commercial potentialin the hands of a committed distributor: it enjoys a North American premiere atToronto after screening at Edinburgh at the weekend.
The third feature fromwriter-director Gavin Hood feels as fresh as new paint in its determination toreflect the realities of shanty town communities rife with casual crime andlethal violence. There is a sense here of a South Africa that has become aswild as the old west. Contemporary reportage is allied to classicalstorytelling with a central figure who could have strayed straight from themean streets of a punchy, post-War film noir. It is easy to imagine Sam Fullerin the director's chair or Richard Widmark as the hoodlum finally able toembrace his better instincts.
Neither his feature debut AReasonable Man (1999) nor In Desert And Wilderness (2001)established Gavin Hood as an international name but Tsotsi should remedy that;crisply edited, compact and compelling, it is filled with bravura moments.
"Tsotsi" means thug and itis also the nickname that has been applied to David (Chweneyagae). Orphaned byAIDS, he has been forced to raise himself, honing his survival instincts andgrowing indifferent to the hurt he causes, the anger he carries or the lives hedamages. The aftermath of one crime finds him beating one of his friends to thepoint of death.
Later, he steals a car andwhen the owner refuses to relinquish the vehicle he shoots her. It is onlyafter driving away that he realises there is a young baby in the back seat. Hedoesn't kill the child or abandon it. Instead, he bundles it up in a browncarrier bag and takes it home. Having the responsibility for another humanreawakens his long dormant compassion for others and leads to the realisationthat he cannot continue to live his life like this.
Tsotsi's success lies in the waythat it manages to change our perspective on the central protagonist. At first,David seems like the worst nightmare of a law-abiding citizen. Wide-eyed andruthless, charismatic actor Presley Chweneyegae seems to seethe with contemptfor the world. He is a walking powderkeg who sees no reason to abide bysociety's rules because it has done nothing for him.
When he starts toacknowledge the humanity of others, we connect to the struggle within him untilthe film's finale becomes emotional, edge of the seat high drama.
Filmed entirely onlocation, Hood avoids the obvious approach of gritty, guerrilla-stylefilm-making to create a film with a polished cinematic sweep and a sense ofeerie beauty lurking in the most unexpected places.
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Gavin Hood based on the novel by Athol Fugard
Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker (featuring the voice of Vusi Mahlasela)