Friday, July 29, 2011

Filmmaking Master Class: Tsotsi

One legacy of South Africa’s former system of apartheid is the concept of the township or shanty town. The most famous of these is Soweto, a huge sprawl of smaller townships on the edge of Johannesburg that by the 1990s had grown to more than one million residents.

The scene is a crowded commuter train on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Four young black men close in around a man they have picked out of the station crowd. Unaware he is their mark, the man smiles until a hand reaches for his money. A knife appears and just as quickly disappears into the man’s stomach. His attackers hold him up until the doors open and the train empties, then leave him to fall dead. Business as usual for Tsotsi and his partners in the violent world of Soweto township.

Coming only five minutes into the South African film Tsotsi, the economy and editing of this almost hypnotic scene were enough to assure that a master was at the helm. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, the picture won an Academy Award in 2006 for Best Foreign Language film. Surprising that it didn’t also take prizes for cinematography and editing. The film is based upon a 1970 novel of the same name by playwright Athol Fugard. The dialogue is in Zulu, Shosha and Afrikaan, including bits of English as well, but most of it is a form of criminal slang—the name Tsotsi is a slang word for “thug.” The ‘foreign language with subtitles’ aspect often works to disadvantage with some viewers who dislike reading subtitles and often think the label ‘subtitled’ equals ‘art film.’ Tsotsi is not a difficult film and in no way fits into the arty and obscure category.

Tsotsi is a young Johannesburg delinquent who has taken to a life of crime in order to support himself. From a troubled upbringing, a mother dying slowly from AIDS, an abusive father, he has developed a talent for violence borne of necessity. On the same evening of the train killing described above, Tsotsi shoots a woman while stealing her car, discovering later that her infant son is in the back seat. He walks away but is drawn back by the baby’s cries. Confused and uncertain, he takes the infant home and tries to care for it, at one point forcing a single mother living nearby to nurse the baby. It is this baby that awakens in the young thug a sense of humanity, and a story often violent blossoms with a kind of hybrid beauty as this newfound humanity seeps into the heart of a young criminal.

The narrative structure of Tsotsi is straightforward. Other than flashbacks of childhood that Tsotsi experiences early in the film, the movement of the story is linear—everything taking place over four nights. Apart from brief scenes with police and moments in the shabeen, there are but three environments in the film: the township, the railway station and area around it, and the nearby suburb of Triumph. Within these settings it is always Tsotsi who drives the narrative.

You will find no devices in this picture, no chases, explosions or computer generated images. In a theatrical style confrontations come through dialogue and staging that is often tableau-like in the director’s storyboarding. Scenes are lit to enhance the emotional content or to accent the story’s tension and what we see are more than a few gorgeous frames of dramatic composition. Taking for example the early scene in Tsotsi’s shack during a dice game, when the character of Tsotsi is in shirtless silhouette against a dark sky, apart and behind the players. The lighting and staging tell us wordlessly much about both characters and place. With such evocative staging we have to wonder if Hood as director was paying tribute to Athol Fugard’s stagecraft. Throughout the film are sequences where nothing is said and yet we follow perfectly the characters thoughts from the use of staging, camera and editing.

Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi is nothing short of masterly, quite the feat for a twenty-one year old making his first film. He has the hard eyes, the face of a tough childhood and a sullen air that speak a thousand words. It is mostly the story inside his head and through his actions we see and understand the change happening to him. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer underscored Chweneyagae’s performance with carefully framed and lit scenes that zoom slowly in on Tsotsi’s face to reveal his thoughts. This method works well against the director’s belief that there always has to be more going on within a character than what he lets out. In the film’s final eight minutes the actor speaks a mere ten words and yet the play of his face and eyes tells volumes about the emotion tearing at his heart.

The final scene develops along a razor’s edge of tension with several possible outcomes, but the movie ends leaving the audience to wonder what happens next. The director chose to leave the audience hanging with the belief that it leaves more to talk about in terms of meaning and the fate of the young man. The DVD offers a choice of three endings, and seeing the alternatives certainly proves that the hanging ending works best. Of the alternatives, one is too predictable and the other slightly glib and unconvincing. The story in the film deserves to be talked about and Hood with his producers has chosen an ending that ensures that.

A final word about music. The scoring of Tsotsi uses throughout the music culture of the township, a type of music called kwaito, the perfect fuel for this story. Most popular among the black youth of South Africa, it is similar to hip hop with lyrics sung, rapped and shouted. Interesting that the sound of kwaito originated from the use of European instruments by African laborers. The soundtrack for Tsotsi is at one moment beautiful and pounding, the next lyrical and soft.

I happened to see it a little late, but Tsotsi is easily the best film of my year.


  1. Keep those reviews of good films coming. Another one I had little knowledge of outside of maybe hearing the name as winner at the Academy Awards. Another plus for our cyberage when good films can be sought and found for viewing even long after the fact. And like good books, good films will always be good films no matter when viewed.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America