South Africa’s entry in the 2005 Oscars and a finalist for Best Foreign Film is the gritty and disturbing tale of redemption, “Tsotsi”. Based on the novel by Athol Fugard and adapted for the screen by Gavin Hood, Tsotsi, which means “thug” or “gangster”, is a nineteen year old gang leader in the sprawling shanty town of the Johannesburg ghetto. Hardened by a lifetime of loneliness and cruelty, Tsotsi and his band of miscreants rob and kill at will. They are steeped in violence, by-products of crushing poverty and decades of racial oppression.
The story begins when Tsotsi pummels a subordinate who questions his brutal tactics. He storms out of their bar hangout and wanders aimlessly into the night. Tsotsi meanders his way to a wealthy neighborhood and sees a BMW pull up to the gate of a large house. A woman steps out and walks to the intercom. Tsotsi seizes the opportunity and jumps into her car door. He attempts to drive off, but is blocked by the screaming woman. Tsotsi casually shoots her in the stomach and speeds away. But Tsotsi cannot drive and soon crashes into the roadside. Tsotsi loots the car and makes a startling discovery. A sleeping infant is in the backseat. Unsure of what to do, Tsotsi throws the child into a bag and carries the little boy back to his shack.
Tsotsi decides to keep the boy for himself. For the first time, we see a crack in his cold veneer and the sad truth of Tsotsi’s life reveals itself. This is the point where the film transcends simple entertainment value and delves into complex social issues. Tsotsi begins a journey of redemption that has him analyzing his existence. He faces the troubling questions of his youth, and in the process, starts to understand the difference between right and wrong. He was never taught this lesson. His life has been one of survival; constantly on the run, doing whatever it takes to see the next day. As he comes to cherish the infant’s life, Tsotsi learns to respect the sanctity of all life. Kindness changes him, and the course of his past actions begins to take a moral toll.
Filmmaker Gavin Hood does an excellent job encompassing a variety of themes in this film. Poverty, violence, racial oppression, the African AIDS crisis, it’s all here and poignantly addressed. What’s even more amazing is the fact that the film is a lean ninety minutes long. Tsotsi hums along at a breakneck pace, but never skips an important detail. Hood uses a lot of wide-angle shots, so the audience is constantly immersed in the surroundings. He wants us to experience life in the ghetto without getting bogged down with a lot of unnecessary and preachy dialogue. It’s tour-de-force filmmaking at its best. Mainstream Hollywood could learn a lot from Hood’s directing style.
Tsotsi, despite its R-rating and extremely realistic violence, is a film that needs to be seen by children. Tsotsi is merely a boy. His actions are terrible, but even more disturbing when you realize that he is just a teenager. His crimes and way of life is the sad norm for many of the world’s displaced youth. We cast a blind eye to their plight, but millions are brought up this way. One of Tsotsi’s saddest ironies is the location of the ghetto. The decrepit shacks and dirt roads are a mere hill away from the bustling skyscrapers of Johannesburg.