Sunday, September 21, 2008

72. South African filmmaker Gavin Hood’s film “Tsotsi” (Thug) (2005): Adaptation of an important African novel on redemption and self discovery

The film is an adaptation of the acclaimed anti-apartheid playwright Irish/South African Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi. Director Gavin Hood wrote the screenplay based on the novel. The film was a critical success winning the best foreign film Oscar along with other awards at film festivals around the world.

Athol Fugard was called “the greatest active playwright in the English speaking world” by Time magazine in 1985. Why he chose to write Tsotsi as a novel and not a play intrigues me—and why Fugard did not write the screenplay of the film intrigues me even more. An article by Andie Miller “From words into pictures” quoting Fugard gives a clue: D.W. Griffith once described film making as the ability to photograph thought, and novels, with their interior monologues, Fugard agrees, make for better adaptations than plays. This is perhaps part of the reason why the film of Tsotsi works so well.

Gavin Hood’s screenplay is a mix of English and “tsotsitaal” (thug language of Soweto). The final product was a modern day adaptation of the novel set in 1958. And it appears that Fugard was happy with Hood’s film.

The story of the film Tsotsi revolves around a car-jacking by a black South African thug. He steals an up-market sedan from a rich back lady driving it. The woman is wounded in the skirmish and the thug drives off with the car with an infant, unintentionally kidnapped, lying in the back seat. Fugard’s novel and Hood’s film explore the subsequent changes on the thug’s life as he matures into a responsible foster parent, as he re-evaluates his own attitudes to women, and his growing empathy for the infant’s parents. Racial issues take a back seat, as sociological and psychological changes in the lead character dominate the film’s theme. Sit back and reflect—the story need not be set in Soweto, it could happen anywhere.

The strength of Hood’s film is the ability to “externalize the internalization” as Jean Paul Sartre would have put it were he to write this review. Tsotsi’s star Presley Chweneyagae who was playing his first film role has very few words to speak but the film captures each detail of his emotions, with lots of close-up shots. You come out of the movie thinking that there was a lot spoken, but you realize it was an illusion. All the other characters talk but the main character spoke very little, but his body “spoke” a lot. Now that’s interesting cinema.

Fugard/Hood uses a crippled beggar as a pivotal point for a change of heart in a thug who does not seem to know what "decency" means. He kills without reason and cannot accept criticism. The broken legs of a beggar remind the thug of the dog with its backbone broken by the thug's cruel father. Asked by the thug, how the cripple continues to live like this, he gets the answer "Because I like the sun on my face!" This conversation leads to a gradual evolution from heartlessness to the actions of a "decent" human being. Towards the end of the film he removes his dark jacket, only to wear a white shirt, a weak symbolic action the director could have avoided.

The entire film uses actors from South Africa and the film can boast of high standards in production quality. The obvious comparison of the ghettos with the posh housing colonies remind you of the comparison made by the Hungarian director Geza von Redvanyi’s remarkable 1965 European film Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) which showed Manhattan’s skyscrapers before flashing back several decades to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story that throw a socio-economic perspective to the respective stories for the perceptive viewer.

Director Gavin Hood has drifted into film direction after a stint as a lawyer and then as an actor. Tsotsi is his third film as a director. He evidently grappled with three different endings of the film: one where the lead character is shot dead, one where he escapes, and a third where he surrenders to the police with the parents of the infant supporting Tsotsi. Each option would provide a definite perspective to the final product. To Hood’s credit, the option that he chose is the most interesting one, and one that makes the viewer think.

The film does not glamorize violence and yet provides some top notch sequences such as the robbing of a rich man on a commuter train, the forced breastfeeding of the infant at the point of a gun, or the communication between a crippled beggar and a thug, all of which could match the best films from Hollywood. The film encapsulates the concerns of Africa, orphans seduced into the world of crime and the tenuous family linkages in a modern world where owning material goods become the dreams of poor yet essentially lovely individuals. Hundreds of parents die each day in Africa, some from AIDS, some from other causes, leaving behind potential Tsotsies to populate the skyline. Fugard and Hood underline one statement: under the veneer of each undesirable human being lies a streak of goodness. Only circumstances can bring those streaks of goodness to the fore.

P.S. Director Mark Dornford-May's South African film U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005) was reviewed earlier on this blog.