Tsotsi

April 13, 2006

Tsotsi means “thug” in the dialect of the South African shantytowns. In the fifties and sixties, a tsotsi was a sharp dressing gangster – a spiv that could have stepped straight out of the Cotton Club. Little by little the term lost its glamour, and came to refer mainly to members of the youth gangs in the townships.

This is the “Tsotsi” of Gavin Hood’s short, intense drama, which won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The lead character, played by amateur actor, Presley Chweneyagae, is a nineteen-year-old hoodlum, who lives in a ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Tsotsi is a product of a brutal and broken family life, which we piece together from flashbacks. He has carved himself a niche outside of the normal run of human society. In his little world there is no room for emotional frailties, or even for a real name. He has perfected the menacing, cold-eyed stare, which he turns on friend and foe alike.

Tsotsi lives for the moment, leading his small gang from one criminal escapade to the next. These jobs involve violence and intimidation. When one of his henchmen, Butcher, shows himself to be a cold-blooded killer, another, Boston, grows rebellious. In a drunken rage he confronts Tsotsi, trying to stir his sense of decency. Tsotsi administers a savage beating, and flees the scene.

Later that night, in one of the richer suburbs, he steals a car from a woman and drives off, only to find a baby in the back seat. At this point, something clicks inside Tsotsi’s mind. He takes the baby back to his shack and tries to look after it, while his thoughts track back over his own childhood. The rest of the story portrays the gradual humanization of Tsotsi, as he uncovers the rudiments of a conscience, and a sense of compassion.

The story is a tragedy, but less so than Athol Fugard’s book of the same name, on which the film is based. Fugard, better known as a playwright, wrote this one-and-only novel in the early 1960s, but it was not published until 1980. The fictional Tsotsi lived during one of the most repressive phases of the Apartheid era, but Gavin Hood has updated the story, making it into a portrait of present-day South Africa.

All of Tsotsi’s crimes and abuses are inflicted on his fellow blacks. The only white face in the entire film is a policeman, who plays a minor role. Even the baby belongs to an affluent black couple that live in fortified suburb. We are looking at a society no longer separated by race but by extremes of wealth and poverty. The first phase of South Africa’s social revolution has been won, but the second will be much harder to achieve. While the world may have been united in its opposition to Apartheid, it is complacent when it comes to the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The festering crime in Johannesburg is merely the local version of the crime that is incubated in the poorer suburbs of New York or Paris. There are Tsotsis being born every day into a world without hope, where crime and violence provide the only way forward

This sounds doctrinaire, but there is nothing preachy about Hood’s film, which is a crisp, taut thriller, driven along by the rhythms of kwaito – the popular African house music now being exported to all parts of the world.

The story is never going to end well, but Hood contrives a last scene in which there is a glimmer of hope. This is not a ploy to please the audience, but a reflection of the way South Africa has changed since the 1960s. Athol Fugard depicted a society brutalised by Apartheid, in which the poor and disempowered took out their frustrations on each other. South Africa today is still a basket case in many ways, but with the evil of segregation removed, there is reason for everyone to imagine a better future.

One of the most striking aspects of this movie is that most of the dialogue is in a shantytown dialect, a mixture of Afrikaans and tribal languages. The young actors Hood uses have grown up in that environment, and this gives their performances a powerful, understated quality. There is a lot of silent staring, filled with fear or menace, or a combination of both. The camera frequently takes Tsotsi’s point-of-view, obliging us to see the world through his eyes. It forces a kind of empathy with this anti-hero, who is always on the verge of doing something diabolical.

Although he is a virtual automaton at the beginning of the story, as the days slip by, we feel Tsotsi’s stone face starting to crack. He continues to act on impulse, rather than calculation, as though he cannot control or digest the changes taking place in his frozen persona. His past has made him what he is, but the upheavals of one week have uncovered a vulnerability that he can hardly recognize, nor understand. Tsotsi is an everyman for the South African underclasses, and his personal downfall has a broader, more optimistic moral. His brief moment of self-realisation is both a defeat and a first glimpse of another life.

Published for The Diplomat, April 13,  2006

Tsotsi
Distributed by NIX Co (release date: 13 April 2006)