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).