Films come in all shapes and all sizes, to speak metaphorically. I’ve been at three in the past week or so – something extremely unusual for me. In order of viewing they were: Tsotsi, also spelled Tsotsie (An Afrikaans word meaning “thug”), Mission Impossible 3 with the one and only Tom Cruise and finally, Sixteen Blocks with the inimitable Bruce Willis. Three different films offering the viewer three differing experiences - the first was moving, stark and all too real; the second superficial, blockbuster and all too unreal; the third leaving that traditional Hollywood good feeling in the gut with the triumph of truth over evil. Ratings out of ten for me would be 9/10, 6/10 and 8/10 respectively. Cruise always seems to be the same endearing boy he has always been in his films while Bruce Willis appears old, decrepit and alcohol-soaked and sports an all too obviously artificial spare tyre. One has to hand it to Willis for at least getting into the part in a very authentic way, save for the belly that is!
However, it was Tsotsi that won the day for me. Set in the poorest slums of Johannesburg, this is the story of a young gang leader who accidentally shoots a woman and flees the scene stealing her car and the baby sleeping inside of it. He doesn’t seem to have a name, and he is simply called Tsotsi (which means ‘thug’). As the film progresses, Tsotsi finds a conscience and some little purpose to his life – looking after the innocent baby - by contrasting the pointlessness of his violent ways to the baby’s newborn innocence.
What is remarkable about this film, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture last year (2005), is that it leads the viewer into the entanglement of issues that is his confused mind. The spectator is somewhat won over by Tsotsi’s growing awareness of his evil-doing. There is an enigmatic scene in which Tsotsi follows a disabled man, insults him, and asks him ‘What is the point of staying alive if you are living like a dog?’ The man cries and weeps, and states proudly that being able to feel the sunshine upon his face every morning is reason enough to go on. What is Tsotsi learning from him? There is silence, and a lot of thinking to be done.
There are several other moving scenes. One which springs to mind is the horrible kicking of a poor dog. We hear one character in the film ask the rhetorical question: “Who would do such a thing to a dog?” Then we have a flashback to Tsotsi’s miserable childhood and see his drunken father brutally kicking their family dog and shouting at his son. Another scene that springs to mind is a lovely sensitive one where Tsotsi has gone to a young mother’s house and makes her (pointing his pistol) breastfeed his “new” child. While she’s feeding the little baby he notices that the young woman has made an array of chimes from broken glass. He does not understand, and asks her why she has made such things which to him are only pieces of glass. She explains that to her they are beautiful reflectors of light and colour and the source of beautiful sounds. We feel that Tsotsi’s education and redemption have begun. In these three vignettes we are led to believe that indeed redemption is possible. The ending of the film shows clearly this possibility with Tsotsi returning the baby and awaiting his punishment at the hands of the law.
In a word this is a bleak film – all too real and all too depressing. It shows the degradation of the shanty towns of Johannesburg and points up the terrible inequality that exists in South African society. However, it does not claim that this is the sole cause of Tsotsi’s misfortune – only a contributory factor. This film makes you think. It is directed by Gavin Hood and Presley Chweneyagae stars as the antihero.
The Film Website is http://www.tsotsimovie.com/