Winner of the 2005 Best Foreign Language Film at the 2005 Oscars, this South African film is a harsh but ultimately redemptive tale of a young gang leader who lives in a shantytown on the edge of Johannesburg. The word Tsotsi is township patois for thug.
The film could be looked at as an interesting mixture of the recent past and the future. The film is based on a novel written in the early Sixties by the liberal playwright Athol Fugard. Fugard was a staunch opponent of apartheid and had his passport confiscated by the regime to try to curb his political activities. Like many writers in the Sixties he took a very positive view that given improving social conditions even the worst of criminals could be rehabilitated. In our much less optimistic age that seems an almost utopian view. Perhaps what Fugard and other Sixties liberals could not have foreseen was that social conditions would not improve for the likes of Tsotsi and that whether they are called, bidonvilles, favelas, or shantytowns, the hyperviolent slums in which characters like Tsotsi murder to survive would grow exponentially in the early twenty first century. In that sense the film looks forward to the slumlands that will become a much more powerful element in our global culture in the coming years.
The film benefits from a terrific performance by Presley Chwenenvagae as Tsotsi and in contrast to the usual grainy hand held photography that signals street level realism, Lance Gewer’s cinematography finds elemental beauty in amongst the poverty and deprivation. There is also a performance of restrained dignity by Terry Pheto as Miriam; although her explanation of the power of Art to Tsotsi does seem a little heavy handed. Much of the drama of the film is also driven by a terrific score, written by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker featuring the voice of legendary South African protest singer/poet Vusi Mahlasela, and South African version of Hip Hop known as Kwaito.
There is a view, expressed by some critics that Tsotsi won best Oscar because the Academy missed ‘City of God’, based in the slums of Mexico City, the previous year which had been a huge commercial and critical success worldwide but Tsotsi seems to me to have deserved its Oscar. The director Gavin Hood does not sentimentalise poverty and does not even try to show Tsotsi consciously becoming a good man, he just shows him allowing himself to be distracted for long enough to stop being a bad one.
Gavin Hood | UK/South Africa | 2005 | 94 minutes | 15