Set amidst the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto – where survival is the primary objective – the film traces six days in the life of a ruthless young gang leader, who ends up caring for a baby accidentally kidnapped during a car-jacking. It is a gritty and moving portrait of an angry young man living in a state of extreme urban deprivation. His world pumps with the raw energy of 'Kwaito music', the modern beat of the ghetto that reflects his troubled state of mind.
South African film Tsotsi is the winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, adapted from the novel by South African playwright, Athol Fugard. It beat some staunch competition from hard-hitting political contenders Paradise Now (Israel) and Sophie Scholl:The Final Days (Germany). No wonder its writer/director Gavin Hood looked so surprised when he got up to accept his Oscar statue.
Author Athol Fugard originally set his dramatic tale in the slums of 1950's Johannesburg against a backdrop of Apartheid, but in his film adaptation Hood has updated it to now, post-apartheid South Africa. It begins with a group of young gangsters travelling from their 'shanty town' on the outskirts of 'Jo'berg' into the city. They roam the crowded train station looking for someone to rob. Naming himself after the slang word for 'thug', Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), is their leader, a poor, violent teenager with only dim memories of his past. After they rob and stab a man on a train, gang member Boston (Mothusi Magano), confronts Tsotsi over his brutal actions. He is clearly shocked and upset, and challenges Tsotsi's moral fibre, asking him why it is so easy for him to be violent. They fight and Tsotsi flees, shooting a woman in a nearby suburb and stealing her car. This event changes Tsotsi's life; unbeknownst to him her baby is in the back seat.
Initially Tsotsi resembles explosive teen dramas City of God (2002), La Haine (1995) and even Mean Streets (1973) with its stylised visuals, hard-edged music and uncensored look at gang violence. But early on it takes a surprising left turn, softening its central character Tsotsi who is thrown into internal turmoil when he inherits the baby. The child's presence brings old memories of Tsotsi's own neglected childhood to the surface and he is not sure what to do with them, just as he is unsure what to do with the baby. Clearly he wants to make some connection, perhaps seeing the child as a projection of himself, and/or a way to right the wrongs of his own life by looking after someone else so helpless. He is ill-equipped though, and instead falls back on the only way he knows how; standover tactics. He forces a young women in a nearby house to look after the child, having just had one of her own.
It's a big story with big themes, but just as Tsotsi is unsure about how to go about his dilemma, Hood also seems unsure or unclear about how to best communicate the internal moral changes Tsotsi undergoes as he tries to work out the right thing to do. The building blocks for redemption are certainly there, but by the end of the film it's still not exactly clear how or why Tsotsi has become a better person. Something is lacking. Perhaps updating the story to post-apartheid South Africa has diluted it of its emotional and political power. Seeing the gangster's tin shack demolished by government authorities while the baby was still inside (as in the original novel) would have spoken volumes about the political situation in Africa during the 1950s. I'm not sure this film version of Tsotsi possesses quite the same potential when it comes to its message about reconciliation now, as the director intended.