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Africa Oscar contender shuns despondency for hope

September 25, 2005

By Rebecca Harrison

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Tired of African films that make
audiences want to slit their wrists, the director of the
continent’s top Oscar contender has opted for a universal tale
of triumph over AIDS, poverty and violence.

The South African-British film “Tsotsi,” a raw but
redemptive story about a Johannesburg gang leader, won the
People’s Choice award at the Toronto festival and is tipped for
a foreign-language Oscar nomination.

While “Tsotsi” — township slang for “gangster” —
addresses head-on the violence of post-apartheid South Africa,
director Gavin Hood wanted to avoid the despondency that so
often characterizes movies about the world’s poorest continent.

“My parents have been car-jacked, I have been mugged, we
all know what it is like,” Hood told Reuters in an interview.
“But do you write a story about the way it is, or the way it
should, or could, or needs to be?

“If you write a story about how it is, then your audience
leaves wanting to slit their wrists.”

“Tsotsi” — touted by film critics as Africa’s answer to
Brazil’s award-winning “City of God” about gang warfare in the
favelas of Rio — traces five days in the life of an abandoned
AIDS orphan who has resorted to ruthless violence.

After stealing a woman’s BMW at gunpoint, lead character
Tsotsi discovers a baby in the back seat and is faced with a
choice that will change his life forever.

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

“Tsotsi” crowns a wave of acclaimed films made in or about
Africa, such as Zulu-language “Yesterday” and “Hotel Rwanda,”
which both won Oscar nominations and Xhosa film “U-Carmen
eKhayelitsha” which took top honors at the Berlin Festival.

A modern adaptation of the anti-apartheid play by Athol
Fugard, “Tsotsi” is set in the notorious Johannesburg township
of Soweto and is distinctively South African.

The film’s dialogue is in township slang, a blend of South
Africa’s 11 official languages with nicknames thrown in for
beer, cars, weapons and sexual positions, that has grown out of
the country’s huge black townships.

HIV/AIDS — which affects one in nine adults in Africa’s
richest country — is “the elephant in the room,” says Hood,
and crime dominates the plot, reflecting South Africa’s
reputation as one of the most crime-ridden places on earth.

The film examines the huge gap between rich and poor in a
country where vast gated mansions sit alongside sprawling
shanty towns, replacing the chasm between black and white 11
years after the end of apartheid.

“My feeling on a political level is that none of us in
Johannesburg can live in isolation,” said Hood. “We have to
step outside beyond our gates and walls.”

However, Hood aims to impart what few African films have
done previously — a universal message for a global audience
more attuned to the romantic comedies of Hollywood than the
squalor and suffering of urban Africa.

“This is a universal parable that grows out of the place in
which it is set,” said Hood. “I didn’t want HIV and class to
overshadow the movie. These issues are there…but I think
people are connecting with the humanity.

“After all, with a different throw of the dice, you or I
could be like Tsotsi.”




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