Film: Red Dust Glory

Tsotsi ushers in a new era for South African cinema

Mar 29, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Little Gangster Man: Presley Chweneyagae (far left) plays the title characterin Tsosti.

Pirated DVDs of Tsotsi are selling at a brisk pace on the streets of Johannesburg despite the fact that it's a rough edit missing the Kwaito music soundtrack. The price is right — slightly more than a ticket to watch the film at a local movie theater. More importantly, the desire and excitement over Tsotsi are there.

The people of South Africa — from its upscale neighborhoods to its township shantytowns — want to see the homegrown film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. They want to see the movie that's single-handedly jump-starting a new, diverse film industry.

Presley Chweneyagae has a round face that's surprisingly childlike for someone 21 years old. But his menacing spirit, the key to his title-character performance in Tsotsi, begins with deep-set eyes and bold, white teeth that he clenches into a terrifying grimace. The rock-solid way he carries himself completes the threatening image. Chweneyagae plays Tsotsi as pint-sized violence, a Little Man Gangster, although director Gavin Hood makes it easy to guess what his future will be.

Tsotsi's story begins with a stabbing on the Johannesburg subway.

Soon after, he steals a BMW, shoots its female owner and takes off with her baby in its backseat. He's a gangster who's wanted by police, and his fate is sealed.

The scenes that explain the widespread appeal of Hood's film are the light and almost comical bits involving the teen thug as an accidental father trying to care for the crying baby. He uses a scrap of newspaper for toilet paper to clean the baby's bottom. He's a clumsy makeshift dad. But the threat of violence quickly returns.

Tsotsi follows a single mom and orders her at gunpoint to breastfeed the kidnapped baby. The young mother (Terry Pheto in a standout performance) is the moral center of the story — how is she able to stay honest despite all the surrounding cruelty.

Her struggles, Chweneyagae says, are the universal explanations for Tsotsi's worldwide acclaim. It's what people relate to, why people are connecting to a tale set in a Johannesburg shantytown.

"White people and black people were responding to the film even before the Oscar and now even more," Chweneyagae says, speaking from a Johannesburg office. "It's because the film is about experiences of life. It's like mythology. It's a story of redemption, how a person responds, how a community acts towards violence."

South African writer Athol Fugard made apartheid vivid with his plays Blood Knot, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island. Tsotsi is based on his only novel, written in the 1960s but published in 1980.

Hood, a white South African, studied cinema in California but has returned to his homeland to make his movies.

Language is key to Tsotsi as well as a source of the production's difficulty. Hood is fluent in Afrikaans and English and speaks a little Zulu. His actors speak Sotho, Tswana and Zulu. Tsotsi-Taal, a dialect that's part Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Yswana and Sotho, became the film's dialogue. "Tsotsi" is also slang for a young black criminal.

Hood's decision to update the film to contemporary South Africa was purely economical, but the impact was dramatic. Post-apartheid Johannesburg means widespread crime, HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Its shantytowns are more dismal than before and this grimness brings an additional tension to Tsotsi's story.

The update also has one upside. Its setting is South Africa after apartheid, and Hood has a scene where a wealthy black man harasses a white police detective on the case of finding his missing baby. It's something that never would have happened before.

Chweneyagae, who grew up in Soweto, admits to little personal memory of apartheid. He's focused on the now. His acting work with South African theater companies has brought him in contact with the people working to make the country better for everyone.

Tsotsi has introduced him to people all over the world. Like the film, he has become a spokesman for a movie industry that until now has received little attention.

"The movie industry will follow us with larger films that continue to play all over the world," the young actor says. "It's a good time."

In the past the government only funded Afrikaans language films or black exploitation films where blacks endorsed apartheid. Hollywood has come to South Africa in recent years for political films like Cry, the Beloved Country, Cry Freedom and Sarafina!.

But times have changed, and the spotlight has shifted to local films that sprout from the South African landscape. Darrell Roodt's film Yesterday won an award at Venice two years ago. U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha won a Golden Bear at Berlin.

Hood is part of a new generation of South African filmmakers who look to tell stories true to the people and places of their homeland. State funding from the National Film & Video Foundation looks to grow thanks to Tsotsi.

Audiences are responding with enthusiasm. Both the African-set The Constant Gardener, a thriller about corrupt drug companies in Africa, and Tsotsi are playing well in white and black Johannesburg neighborhoods.

Red dust covers the shantytowns and its dirt roads. It's the color of despair for the million-plus people living in the townships that ring Johannesburg. It's also the color of triumph as Tsotsi plays to enthusiastic audiences around the world. ©