Opening 4 May 2006
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) leads a gang of South African street kids called Boston, Butcher, and Aap in petty thievery. Their crimes culminate in a stabbing on a subway train. They won’t be discovered, but still their deed leaves them sober and serious, except for Tsotsi who, full of swagger, leaves the gang behind and hi-jacks a car which happens to have a baby in the back seat. From here on the film could be called A Man and a Baby. He accepts the responsibility and cares for the child whom he names David. He coerces a young mother to breast feed it. As a “father” he reflects on his own bereft childhood, his dying mother, his brutal father, and his tortured pet. He shows the baby the sewer pipes where he sought shelter and lived as an orphan after running away from home. While Tsotsi is becoming human and benign towards mankind, the police and the parents (well-to-do black people) are searching for the evil kidnapper.
This film won best foreign-language film at the 2006 Academy Awards, the first from South Africa to do so, although another South African film, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, won best film at the 2005 Berlinale. Director Gavin Hood and his lead actor Chweneyagae attended the German premiere at Hamburg’s Abaton cinema and answered questions. The word “Tsotsi” is street language for a gangster, crook or member of a gang. In South Africa there are 11 languages, and the colloquial slang is a mixture of several of them. Hood wrote the script based on a book published in 1979 (written much earlier in 1961) by playwright Athol Fugard. The original book contained sketches of various characters; Hood put them together into one story (although the individual stories can be picked out in certain cases, e.g., the beggar with no legs, Teacher Boy and his sermons on “decency and respect” ) and modernized the story to fit today’s South African shanty towns. It was filmed in Soweto and Johannesburg. Hood had his camera man concentrate on close shots directly into the faces of the actors. Although many of the actors are well-known in their own country and have studied and worked abroad, Presley Chweneyagae grew up in a shanty town not unlike the ones depicted in the film. His mother saved him from a fate similar to his film character by introducing him to a community theater when he was only six. This is his first film, although he just finished a successful run playing the lead in Hamlet in the South African State Theater. In Tsotsi he conveys very well the three personalities of one person: aggressive, shy and silent, and very cool. It’s interesting to compare this film with the Belgian L’Enfant which won first prize in Cannes 2005, as it, too, is about a young man and a baby, although with a different background and different resolution. (Becky Tan)