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Time Out says
Mon Mar 13 2006Fresh from its win at last week’s Oscars, Gavin Hood’s important and vital – if a little heavy-handed – film is an update of Athol Fugard’s 1959 novel of the same name. Hood transfers Fugard’s story from its setting in Johannesburg’s long-extinct township of Sophiatown to another, nameless township on the edge of the modern-day city. Eveything and nothing has changed.
Fugard’s overriding interest was in disaffected black youth and the reasons behind their violent crimes. His curiosity survives the journey across half a century, as does his creaky device of parachuting a baby into the life of a thug and watching his cold heart melt. It’s a ripe opportunity for Hood to fuse a sharp social portrait with emotive storytelling.
Here, we track Tsotsi (meaning ‘thug’ in the local Tsotsitaal slang), who’s played by first-timer Presley Chweneyagae and is a hard-faced young man with few ties and fewer scruples. Tsotsi becomes an unwitting surrrogate father after stealing a car from the gates of a suburban home before realising that there’s a baby asleep on the back-seat. It’s a simple device, crude even,to employ an innocent baby to thaw a hard heart but still it’s a gimmick that gives Hood much scope to examine some of the more unpalatable realities of life in urban South Africa. It also, crucially, gives his story some hope – a commodity hard to begrudge when Hood refuses to shy away from showing Johannesburg as a frightening place in distinct crisis.
Of course what distinguishes Hood’s film from the novel is history itself. Since Fugard wrote ‘Tsotsi’, the policy of apartheid has peaked and crumbled; democratic elections have arrived; and, crucially, the sharp disparity of wealth in South Africa has, at least partly, lost its racial edge. The townships remain, but a new black middle class has emerged. Hood confronts this division head-on. Tsotsi’s victims – from a homeless man in a wheelchair to a wealthy suburban couple– are black. It gives his film immediate, difficult relevance.
Some of the film’s production values are askew, and the shadow of ‘City of God’ hangs awkwardly over it. It’s over-lit, over-filtered and brimming with one too many crane shots. That said, the pace never dips and the music from, among others, South African kwaito star Zola (who appears in the film) is excellent.
‘Tsotsi’ belongs in a ripe tradition – once outlawed – of progressive white South African filmmakers such as Oliver Schmitz (‘Mapantsula’) and Darrell Roodt (‘Yesterday’) who demand understanding of their country’s inequities during and beyond white-rule. Visions of South Africa from within (‘Cry, The Beloved Country’) and without (‘Cry Freedom’) are not unusual; but this is surely the first not in the English language to make an impact internationally.
Fri Mar 17, 2006