Last night I caught this year’s Oscar-winner for best foreign language film, Tsotsi. The movie is part of the current renaissance experienced by the South African film industry. Over the past two years, the country has been slowly finding its cinematic voice as a young democracy. After a few false starts (Drum, Soldiers of the Rock, Max & Mona, Cape of Good Hope, Country of My Skull) the nation’s filmmakers have begun telling South African stories with increased confidence. This effort has yielded some interesting films (Red Dust, Forgiveness, Zulu Love Letter) and even a few gems such as Berlin-winner U-Carmen E-khaleyitsha and the affecting Oscar-nominated Yesterday.
Based on Athol Fugard’s bestseller, latest film covers six days in the violent life of a young Johannesburg gang leader nicknamed Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae). A runaway street-kid turned local thug, Tsotsi lurks in the shadows of the shanty towns that surround the city. One night he shoots a rich woman and steals her car, only to discover a baby in the back seat. Learning to care for the child will allow Tsotsi to grow a conscience, make peace with his own troubled upbringing and gain passage into adulthood.
Well written and nicely crafted, Tsotsi could have been a good film. The story is tightly structured, the acting slightly over-the-top but convincing, the photography is gorgeous and the kwaito soundtrack fresh and invigorating. Yet is almost feels as if director Gavin Hood had his sights set on Hollywood and chose instead to make a popular film. In the light of these ambitions, he was successful: the film won audience awards at the Edinburgh and Toronto film festivals, before walking away with the Academy Award.
The foreign-language Oscar is not something every foreign filmmaker strives for, as it often means formatting the film to make it Academy-friendly: slick production values, exotic locale, cute child and Hollywood endings are de rigueur (1).
The over-produced Tsotsi is no exception: the lush, orange-hued cinematography removes all grit from the ghetto, the overbearing soundtrack tells us what to feel and when, the happy ending is predictable and littered with clichés. This coming of age tale pales in comparison to the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant (The Child), which tackles a similar plot but does away with artifice, giving the story its immediacy and authenticity. Redemption is the backbone of most melodramas: it’s a well-traveled cinematic journey and today’s seasoned filmgoers need few road signs to reach a story’s emotional destination. Tsotsi is too manipulative in its efforts to tug at the heartstrings and obvious in its desire to get the point across.
South African films have come a long way since the end of Apartheid. Tsotsi is another fine attempt at telling South African stories, made possible by newfound freedom of expression. Let’s hope South African filmmakers get over their need to impress Hollywood and continue to seek their own, unique voice.
(1) I think Tostsi’s distributor Miramax is partly to blame, being also responsible for other shameless, tear-jerking Oscar-winners such as Cinema Paradiso, Kolya, Life is Beautiful.