Director Gavin Hood projects the inherent failure of unbridled capitalism in the "New" South Africa subtly in his award-winning adaptation of playwright Athol Fugard's "Tsotsi". Through a character study of hardened man-child Tsotsi, whose name simply means "thief" in local Jo'burg slang, Hood explores the meaning of the "new" South Africa. An adaptation of Athol Fugard's play written in the 1950's, the film echoes the inescapable conflict colonialism has stained the continent with since the ...read more
Director Gavin Hood projects the inherent failure of unbridled capitalism in the "New" South Africa subtly in his award-winning adaptation of playwright Athol Fugard's "Tsotsi". Through a character study of hardened man-child Tsotsi, whose name simply means "thief" in local Jo'burg slang, Hood explores the meaning of the "new" South Africa. An adaptation of Athol Fugard's play written in the 1950's, the film echoes the inescapable conflict colonialism has stained the continent with since the 20th century. Social ills, economic inequality, destabilized family centers, political corruption, and the shame associated with HIV/Aids are wondrously presented in Hood's immensely sensitive interpretation.
As Tsotsi claws his way through a life of crime and brutality he finds himself cornered between the state and his own self-destruction. Tsotsi has developed such a hard exterior that he pummels one of his closest friends in the opening scenes of the film after his friend challenges Tsotsi to tell the group his real name. Tsotsi goes on to carjack a woman that same night only to realize after crashing the car that there's a baby in the backseat. From there we watch Tsotsi unravel as he tries to cope with the newborn child.
Presley Chweneyagae is remarkable as Tsotsi. He offers a range of emotion and vulnerability often difficult for people to confront in real life. On screen his presence reflects vividly the unprotected lives of children whose families are pulled apart under the pressures of illness, poverty, and neglect. He clings to the baby with a fierce loneliness that captures our collective need for each other in a way that blends the sacred mother-father-child relationship.
Terry Pheto provides a steadfast will to her character as the young widowed mother, Miriam, who finds herself breastfeeding a child who's not hers at gunpoint along with her own newborn. It is through this uneasy relationship that Tsotsi gains enough clarity to restore a sense of order to the characters' lives in the film.
Fugard's play, written in the 1950's, is beautifully translated on screen as Hood lays kwaito tracks over sun struck township shots contrasted with dark, suburban Johannesburg. It is through the intricate commentary on South Africa's emerging middle class that we gain a sense of the incongruity that defines social life in South Africa. It is estimated there are as many as 5.3 million people living with HIV/Aids in South Africa as of 2003. The prevalence of the disease is a complex history of underdevelopment and apartheid legislation. Since the political liberation of South Africa, officials have had a myriad of frustrations to deal with and the continued relevancy of Fugards' play written in 1950 reinforces that.
Many scholars and critics cite the government's unmeasured acceptance of western policies as a prime factor in the continuing problems of unemployment, development, crime, and health care. The film sharply comments on how one affects the other as we watch Tsotsi remember a troubled past. The employment of unchecked free market business without adequate safety nets implemented through state and regional legislation makes these connections all the more pointed. Hood aptly picks up on Fugard's image of the lone wolf and revisits this image throughout the film. It is this lone wolf that forecasts the dangers of the Orphan Generation that South Africa has to deal with.
Though the movie's final scenes evoke a sense of surrender, the humanity that is reawakened in Presley's character echoes the hopes and dreams of downtrodden people everywhere. The economic gap between the masses of people in Johannesburg and the swelling middle class is the only way to address the problem of development and disease control. As young South African artists and filmmakers seem to remind us over and over again, it is up to the human family to prove that, "We can and we must do better than this".
* Teaira S. Buchanan is a volunteer contributor to Pambazuka News
* Fahamu was responsible for a pre-release screening of Tsotsi, which took place in Oxford on March 10. The film’s official United Kingdom release takes place on March 17.