I was obviously very concerned… about whether the audience would go with this man on a journey, when he is clearly a violent man, and a dangerous little man, a nasty little piece of work in many ways. Whether, when he takes this baby of three months, this might be too much for some people to deal with… He is your worst nightmare.
— Gavin Hood, “The Making of Tsotsi“
Tell me, why are we here?
— Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Tsotsi
During a brief, wordless moment in “The Making of Tsotsi,” included on Miramax’s DVD, director Gavin Hood is embracing his young star Presley Chweneyagae, grasping him in a full body hug from behind. On the most literal level, the image illustrates what the actor is saying, that he appreciated that Hood was “always there to catch me,” surely important for the first time actor. But the shot, which lasts less than a minute, says more than that too, illustrating in part just what this movie is about, that a single instant of warmth, just one extension of confidence and generosity, might change everything.
In this case, the artists’ mutual trust resulted in a movie that not only won 2005’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, but also tells a harrowing story in a manner both poetic and grim. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard that was set during the 1950s and published in 1980, Tsotsi is set in an amorphous now, defined by the hopelessness of poverty more than a specific moment in time. Its look is not conventionally “realistic,” with lighting and set designs that are subtly evocative rather than overbearingly gritty, and frames that are close and quiet rather than fast-cut and hectic.
Athol describes beautifully the gradual awakening inside Tsotsi’s mind. Now, in a movie that’s really quite hard to do, because unless you have voiceover and you talk about it, which is usually hokey, the only way you can see what’s going on inside his head is great acting… and allowing your audience to look at that performance evolving. And that’s why we chose to shoot it in a more, if you will, static style, as opposed to a handheld style.
That’s not to say the movie overlooks the violence, despair, and squalor that shape its narrative. It opens on dice, as a group of young men make bets, drink liquor, and exhale cigarette smoke. “What are we doing tonight?” one wonders out loud. All look to Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), gazing out a window, his back to the group. Watching this scene for the commentary track, Hood notes that it sets up:
the idea that life is a bit of a game of chance in many ways. None of us is responsible for where we’re born or who are parents are, what our socioeconomic situation is as we start life, and obviously these are huge influences on who we turn out to be. But at the same time, of course, life is also made up of decisions we make ourselves, and the extent to which those decisions influence our path in life.
Tsotsi – Interview with Director Gavin Hood
The choices facing Tsotsi are not enviable. He and his crew — Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano) — live in a shantytown just outside Johannesburg, where they deal drugs, steal, and scavenge, having worked their way up from the drain pipes where they lived as orphaned or abandoned children. As they head to the city to find a victim, they pass public service posters (“HIV affects us all”), a detail that marks the ongoing risk that afflicts post-apartheid kids; indeed, flashbacks reveal that Tsotsi lost his mother to AIDS when he was just nine.
Sad and angry, Tsotsi is also the group’s charismatic center of energy: the camera maintains something like a respectful middle distance as they arrive at Johannesburg’s train station and he scopes the crowd in search of a victim (Hood notes, “Inside, behind this mask, is a kid”). They descend with a scary grace, surrounding a man on the train, intimidating him, and then, in an unexpected instant, Butcher stabs him with an ice pick, right up under his ribs, while the others hold him up. The boys wait until the car is empty, then let the body drop to the floor and run off with a wallet full of small bills.
At a local pub they get smashed and argue: newest group member Boston is shocked by the murder, pressing Tsotsi to consider whether he’s capable of “decency.” Exhausted and annoyed when Boston presses him to give his “real name, the name his mother gave” him, Tsotsi (whose street name means “thug”) erupts. He leaps from his chair and assaults Boston, smashing his face repeatedly with his fist. The director explains the choice to show the violence as brutal and fast, not titillating, not cathartic: “Real violence is very sudden, and it’s the aftermath that really affects us.”
The effect on Tsotsi is immediate. He runs into the night, across the field between the shantytown and the city that, Hood says, represents the “wasteland of his mind.” When he stops running, he finds himself outside an expensive home up in the hills, watching a woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana) opening the security gate. As if on a whim, he leaps to steal her BMW (which, it turns out, he can barely drive), then panics when she charges him, and shoots her. Soon enough, Tsotsi discovers the reason she was so desperate to stop him: her three-month-old baby is in the back seat, bawling and alone.
When Tsotsi decides to take the baby home with him (to the shack that Hood describes as “sitting like a vulture above the rest of the shantytown, separated from the others”), he makes all kinds of wrong choices: he feeds it bits of bread, then condensed milk, diapers it with newspaper, leaves it in the shopping bag under his bed while he goes out.
During one sojourn, he meets a homeless crippled man (Jerry Mofokeng). Furious and touched at the same time, Tsotsi can’t understand how this man — whose spine was crushed in a mining accident — still wants to live. Their exchange, Hood suggests, creates “the sense of two people lost in a big, lonely, empty city.” He notes in particular the sound design, which he calls “music itself, the sound of the wind on the flag and this rumble as something goes by, the distant sound of traffic, the clacking of these wheels as he moves backwards, and… the crunch of footsteps as Tsotsi walks forward.” While the movie does incorporate music by the South African artist Zola (who also appears in a small role, as a local gangster), it also leaves open these spaces where, as Hood says, diegetic sound tells its own story. (Hood expands this discussion of sound in cinema while commenting on his remarkable 20-minute short film, “The Shopkeeper,” included on the DVD.)
Just so, when Tsotsi finds a food source for the baby — a young widow he spots at the market, with an infant tied to her back — he enters her shack with gun drawn, the soundtrack quiet and tense with her fear and his ignorance. Miriam (Terry Pheto) breastfeeds the kidnapped baby at gunpoint, her own child beside her on the bed, as Tsotsi watches, gun in his lap, transfixed. He looks through her room, finding mobiles she’s made, rusty when she was sad and blue-and-green glass when she was happy. As Hood observes here, Tsotsi is moved by her ability to express herself in art, as “He hasn’t found an outlet for his pain other than in violence.” (The DVD includes as well two alternative endings, where violence offers a means of finding redemption or losing oneself.)
Tsotsi’s grappling with the baby’s needs leads him to seek other forms of communication, almost in spite of himself. Repeatedly, he fights others to survive, and now, with Miriam’s example, he finds he must resist what seems his inevitable future as it leads from his past. Watching a scene where Tsotsi walks down the center of a train track, Hood says, “Tsotsi is literally on a track that he can’t get off of, right down the center of the frame, with the city like a huge character that’s indifferent behind him.”
Tsotsi – Theatrical Trailer