Gavin Hood felt that there was more than just an Oscar ™ riding on the success of TSOTSI, based on the novel by Athol Fugard and South Africa’s official entry for the 2005 Best Foreign Film Academy Award ™. It’s one of the many things we talked about when I interviewed him on February 10, 2006. Engaging, witty, and ferociously intelligent, Hood also discussed what turned a practicing lawyer into a filmmaker, and why a white man making a film about a black man’s experience in Johannesburg is anything but an oxymoron.
With TSOTSI, Gavin Hood has taken the liberty of updating the timeframe of South African writer Athol Fugard’s only novel. In doing so, the politics of apartheid that spurred the story in the book has given way to the tragedy of AIDS. Changing the circumstances of its title character’s orphaning, though, doesn’t affect the nature of the larger story, that of throwaway children and society’s response to and responsibility for them.
TSOTSI (Presley Chwenayagae) is a gang leader in one of Johannesburg’s shantytowns. He and his two cronies prowl their neighborhood victimizing those weaker then they are, and pull small-time robberies in the more affluent parts of town. One of these, a carjacking, goes very wrong when the owner of the car refuses to hand it over, continuing to try to stop Tsotsi even after being shot by him. As he speeds away, the reason becomes clear. There’s a baby in the back seat. Instead of ditching the child with the car, he puts it into one of the shopping bags he finds with the baby, and takes it home. And there, in the irony of throwaway child taking responsibility for a child that hasn’t been thrown away, exactly, but inadvertently snatched from its parents, begins Tstoti’s road to redemption.
TSOTSI remains at all times an intensely human story, one that transcends the particulars of its time and its place. It’s also one that is deliberately challenging as it tweaks the audiences sympathies, emotions, and assumptions about the nature of true justice.