Hollywood seems to have embraced the South African reality of crime, grime and poverty after Tsotsi won the best foreign-language film Oscar on Sunday.
The story of a violent young criminal living dangerously in and around the townships of Johannesburg has been lauded for its apt depiction of life for millions today.
Gavin Hood’s adaptation of a novel by acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard has an immediacy that has impressed many, including township dwellers in South Africa who have a huge appetite for United States action movies.
Hood struck a nationalist theme as he accepted the award, shouting: ”Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika” and ”amandla”.
But he also said he was accepting the award on behalf of all the directors of foreign films.
”We may have foreign language films, but our stories are the same as yours stories. They are about the human heart and emotions.”
The Oscar is one of several international awards that Tsotsi has won.
”We are finding our voice,” said Paul Raleigh, one of the co-producers.
”There is something about this film that appeals to our humanity.”
Shot in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto, the film tells the story of a 19-year-old ”tsotsi,” or thug, who is confronted with the depravity of his life while caring for a baby that he found in the backseat of a car he hijacked after shooting the child’s mother.
Set to kwaito music, the pumping sound of South Africa’s urban youth, Tsotsi opens with the ruthless teenager leading his posse to a train station to prey on passengers.
The victim turns out to be an older man who is mercilessly stabbed on a packed commuter train as a small envelope of cash is pulled from the inner pocket of his suit jacket.
”We didn’t want to glamourise crime. We didn’t want to sensationalise it. But we needed to show that the character of Tsotsi was dangerous, that he is capable of killing,” said Raleigh.
”But because of his age, there is a vulnerability, and when you start chipping away at his armour, you see him break down.”
The film revolves around Tsotsi’s wrenching decision to return the baby to his parents, doing ”the right thing” perhaps for the first time in his young, hard life.
”It’s a story about hope, it’s a story about forgiveness, and it also deals with the issues that we are facing as South Africans: Aids, poverty and crime,” said Presley Chweneyagae, the 21-year-old actor who plays Tsotsi.
”But at the same time, it could take place anywhere in the world,” said Chweneyagae, who made his film debut in Tsotsi after briefly working in community theatre in his home township near Mafikeng in northern South Africa.
The world of film has also stepped in to reshape the reality for a young man named Delano Daniels, a real-life township teenager on whose experiences Totsi could have been based.
By the age of 18 Daniels had three carjackings, two cash-in-transit heists and a handful of burglaries under his belt.
He was still at school in the gang-infested township of Westbury west of Johannesburg when he began running drugs for gangsters in the neighbourhood. Like many South African boys his age, he aspired to be just like them.
”I joined a car theft syndicate in 2000 and became the youngest member,” he says.
”We were robbing cash vans and never getting caught. I was doing drugs, smoking buttons [Mandrax],” he says. Not getting caught, he says, made him feel invincible.
Most of the time, he recorded his activities using a home video camera. Gauging from some of his raw footage, his fellow criminals did not seem to mind and can be seen playing to the camera.
”I was just doing it for fun. I was always interested in film,” he says.
What emerged was two very frantic and unusual home-made films pulsating with rap music tracks, a haphazard array of video clips and haunting stills.
Daniels used whatever equipment he could find to produce the works that, he says, were never intended for anything in particular.
It was not until he was arrested during a burglary in May 2003, sentenced to 300 hours of community service and ordered to participate in an eight-week diversion programme for juvenile offenders that he began to take stock of his life.
He was in his final school year. ”I figured we only live once and there are two routes I can take to get somewhere in the next 10 years. I looked at the friends I had who were involved in crime. They always had problems with police investigating them, adding such strain to their lives,” he said.
Desperate for her son to make something of himself, Daniels’ mother considered enrolling him in a local film school in the hope that he could develop his interest while keeping him out of trouble. But as a single parent the estimated R35Ã‚Â 000 ($7Ã‚Â 000) she needed to do this, made it impossible.
”So, my mother started writing to different film schools and production companies in America,” he says.
Seeing samples of his amateur films and learning of details of his life, Video Symphony, a media training programme located in Burbank, California, contacted him in 2004.
”They offered me an international scholarship. I was the first foreign student, the first African and the first South African to study there,” he beams.
Between February and July 2005 Daniels undertook an intensive course in film production and editing. Since his return to South Africa, he has been making corporate videos and publicity segments for the juvenile offender and restorative justice programme.
He has harnessed his experience to help teenagers in Johannesburg’s roughest neighbourhoods who risk ruining their lives as he almost did.
”We need to put our minds in order. Realistically speaking, things are not in order,” he told about 200 seniors at the Westbury Secondary School this week.
Most were intrigued when he explained that the African American stars they admire so much, such as 50 Cent, Denzel Washington and Will Smith came from humble beginnings in communities just like theirs.
Daniels gave his first 16-minute production the title 2 to $ix, a reference to the prison mark of a career thief.
In its opening scene, he is seen waving a pistol, clearly high on drugs, cursing and mumbling to the camera.
”That’s what I was like,” admits the softly spoken but animated youth.
Daniels has not yet seen the film Tsotsi, but what he does know is that the life he once lived he now prefers to keep on the screen only.
South African President Thabo Mbeki has congratulated Hood and the entire cast and crew of Tsotsi for winning the Oscar for best foreign-language film at the 78th Academy Awards on Sunday.
In a statement on Monday, Mbeki said the award was ”yet another well-deserved accomplishment of our country and people”.
”A story of poverty, hopelessness and struggle transformed into faith and a
profound moral re-awakening leading to better future, Tsotsi is another
appropriate representation of the ‘Age of Hope’,” stated Mbeki.
”It bears testimony to the abundance of South African talent and symbolises what South Africans can achieve when we work together towards a common objective. Tsotsi brings sharply to the fore the important role that the arts can play in nation building.”
He said the award had given a boost to the local film industry, following the winning of the Best Actress by South African Charlize Theron in 2004, as well as the nomination of another South African film, Yesterday, while
simultaneously propelling the country forward on the global stage, ”to which we
were so recently re-admitted and are indebted to make a contribution towards its betterment”.
”On behalf of the government and people of South African, I would like to congratulate Gavin Hood, the cast and the entire team for a remarkable
achievement. They have made our nation immensely proud,” the President
Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan has also congratulated the cast and crew of the film for doing the country proud.
”I want the cast and production team of the acclaimed movie Tsotsi to know that I and millions of other South Africans salute them for the splendid and challenging contribution they have made to indigenous African film making,” Jordan said on Monday.
”Their achievement has revealed to the world, and the US in particular, that South African talent — as evidenced by award-winning actress and second-time Oscar nominee, Charlize Theron, for example — not only has the potential to stand tall and compete as equals with our international counterparts, but is also of world class,” he added. — Sapa and AFP