Tsotsi
20 March 2006
by Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa

Tsotsi: Presley Chweneyagae stars as TsotsiMy first thought as I walked out after seeing this movie was that it was so nice to be able to sit through an entire full-length South African movie without once having the urge to cringe. This thought, sadly, summed up what was the general state of the South African film industry until recently, and the wider public's usual reaction to it. Although we have the technical expertise, most of the "South African" films that we've produced have either been small productions that have largely been overlooked by the public in favour of whatever American flavour-of-the-month is on circuit, or low-brow crowd pleasers. Such films can best be described as "embarrassing" to anyone in South Africa with even the slightest taste or interest in seeing the local film industry grow into something that consistently outputs respectable South African stories.

From the opening scenes of Tsotsi, as the camera sweeps across the township, which has been eerily - but purposely - cast in an orange glow via desaturation and sepia effects utilised in post production, you know you are about to be watching something special, and it doesn't disappoint.

The story centres around a young "gangster" (for which tsotsi is a slang term), played by Presley Chweneyagae, who is known only as Tsotsi. He is a resident of Soweto, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that houses over a million people. In order to survive in the horrific conditions that life in a township can bring, Tsotsi has chosen a life of crime, mugging the more well off and participating in the occasional car hijacking, with a group of like-minded friends.

Tsotsi: Terry Pheto stars as MiriamOne night a hijacking goes wrong as Tsotsi finds an infant strapped into a car seat on the back seat of the car. Unsure of what to do, and not wanting to abandon the baby boy on the outskirts of the township, he takes the baby back to his shack but soon finds that he is totally unequipped to deal with the situation. This leads him to Miriam (Terry Pheto), a widow who lives nearby and has a baby of her own. He enlists her help in caring for the baby (and by "enlists", of course, I mean sticks a gun in her face and demands her assistance) and his continued reliance on her help results in a relationship that develops beyond an uncomfortable aggressor-victim situation into something more meaningful. It helps to soften Tsotsi and show him there is more to life - even in a township - than just crime and a complete lack of respect for human life to which he is accustomed.

Township life has been romanticised to some degree in this movie and the usual nature and brutality of township gangsters has been softened. Presumably this was to make the story more palatable and humane and, by extension, accessible to a largely cynical South African audience which might otherwise feel cheated by the ending. However, I don't know that there would have been any other way to tell the story, as the events that lead to Tsotsi regaining his humanity are key to making the narrative work and this is, after all, a work of fiction.

There was only one moment in the movie that broke my concentration and knocked me right out of the story: the computer-generated ants. Although I'd seen footage of them before in behind-the-scenes programmes on TV and was, therefore, prepared for them, seeing them on screen in the scene just destroyed the moment for me. I can't quite figure out what the problem was, but the ants just didn't seem real; I think it may have been that they didn't move as if they had weight and were affected by gravity. They could just as easily have been particles of dust swirling in the air. The result was that the emotional impact of the scene was completely lost to me, although other members of the audience gasped in dismay in fear of what might happen to the baby.

My only other real criticism of the movie is that the soundtrack almost exclusively features the music of Zola (who, incidentally, plays the part of Fela, the local high-rolling gangster, in the movie). Although he is a talented, well-recognised artist (both locally, and now, due to this movie, increasingly overseas), it just felt like Zola overexposure. We have a long list of skilled, popular performers whose music would have complemented this movie perfectly, and it's unfortunate that their work wasn't also included. I think it would have made for a much more interesting and representative soundtrack album that could have introduced kwaito and African hip-hop to the rest of the world much more effectively, on the back of the fame and acclaim that this movie has generated worldwide. Instead, we have a few extra tracks on the soundtrack album with the always dubious "not included in the movie" note.

Gripes aside, this is a great movie. The entire production - directing, cinematography, editing, soundtrack, acting, and story - come together beautifully and, for once, I felt as if I was seeing something that truly represented the South Africa with which I identify, even though, thankfully, the story and characters don't too closely resemble the daily life I am lucky enough to experience. From the audience's reaction throughout the movie, I think the rest of the South Africans in the room felt the same way.

Tsotsi: Presley Chweneyagae stars as Tsotsi

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Key Facts
Year: 2005
Format: Feature; widescreen; colour
Running Time: 94 minutes (approx)
Language: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English (subtitles)
Country: UK/South Africa
Director: Gavin Hood
Writing: Athol Fugard (novel)
Writing: Gavin Hood (written by)
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi)
Cast: Mothusi Magano (Boston)
Cast: Israel Makoe (Tsotsi's father)
Cast: Percy Matsemela (Sergeant Zuma)
Cast: Jerry Mofokeng (Morris)
Cast: Benny Moshe (Young Tsotsi)
Cast: Nambitha Mpumlwana (Pumla Dube)
Cast: Zenzo Ngqobe (Butcher)
Cast: Kenneth Nkosi (Aap)
Cast: Thembi Nyandeni (Soekie)
Cast: Terry Pheto (Miriam)
Cast: Ian Roberts (Captain Smit)
Cast: Rapulana Seiphemo (John Dube)
Cast: Owen Sejake (Gumboot Dlamini)
Cast: Zola (Fela)
Cinematography: Lance Gewer
Film Editing: Megan Gill
Music: Paul Hepker
Music: Mark Kilian
Music: Vusi Mahlasela
Music: Zola
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