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Tsotsi and an Interview with Gavin Hood

Gavin Hood is a white South African who recalls being raised by a Zulu housekeeper and befriending her young son. But as boys grew older, they were separated. Because of apartheid and segregation, they were not allowed to attend the same schools. When Hood was ten-years-old, he recalls seeing a film called

E' Lollipop

, about two South African boys, one black, one white, who are separated and then spend the rest of the story searching for each other. The film made an impression on Hood who says 'he had always thought films were made by people overseas and that's how we learned about them. It never occurred to me that the films could be about us, South Africans, and I never thought we could learn about ourselves.'

Although Hood studied to be a lawyer, a desire to make films about South Africa stayed with him. At 29, he sold everything and signed up for a UCLA film studies extension program. When he returned to South Africa, his first job was with the Department of Health. He was hired to write and direct 'educational dramas' about HIV and AIDS. This required that he work with young people in the townships.

'And that's how I got to know very well kids like the ones in Tsotsi,' says Hood, 'That was my real introduction into what life was like that I had been fortunate enough not to experience.'

Hood read Athol Fugard's 1980 novel Tsotsi soon after it came out. He liked the book but since he was still a student, he didn't realistically consider making it into a film. But more than a decade later, someone approached Hood about bringing Fugard's novel to the screen and Hood jumped at the opportunity. The resulting film, which Hood wrote and directed, has been doing well in South Africa and recently has been gathering international acclaim as well as an Oscar. The film boasts a remarkable cast of young South African actors, most notably Presley Chweneyagae as the title character Tsotsi (the name actually means thug) and Terry Pheto as a young mother who inspires a change in Tsotsi.

Hood updated the setting of Fugard's novel to the present but keeps the trajectory of the story the same. Tsotsi is a young street hood that commits violence without giving it much thought. Then he enters a more affluent neighborhood and steals a car from a woman who he shoots. As he drives away, he suddenly realizes that the woman's infant child is in the back seat. His first impulse is to just get rid of the baby, but something stops him. He's moved by a sense of compassion that he has not exhibited before. This starts Tsotsi on a journey of self-discovery and brings him to a point where change may be possible. It's this journey that Gavin Hood says was most appealing to him.

BETH ACCOMANDO: What appealed to you about bringing Athol Fugard's book to the screen?

GAVIN HOOD: I think two things. On the one hand I think it's a book that deals with timeless and universal themes about redemption, self-discovery, coming of age and forgiveness and self-forgiveness. It's essentially a universal and timeless story of a young man's journey from a position of being very angry with the world to a place where the character achieves clarity and self-awareness. And that story could be told in any nation. On the other hand, it was a story that was set in my home city of Johannesburg, which is a city that we don't often get a chance to put on screen, and where we have some fantastic young actors who don't often get to work in films, and where we have great music that's not often heard outside of South Africa. So the combination of universal themes with a very specifically South African location and the ability to work with a very South African energy was very appealing.

BA: What are the things that you feel are very specific to South Africa?

GH: I think that issues of redemption and forgiveness are themes and ideas that South Africans have wrestled with more than almost anyone else and have wrestled with very successfully, think of the work done by Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I think contemplating what it means to seek forgiveness'and there's tremendous capacity in human beings to forgive provided they feel a genuine apology'is something South Africans are dealing with. And in a sense that's what's most appealing to me about the film is that it's a story about a young person who does some pretty terrible things, but on the other hand, as we get to know him and understand where he's from, we find he's like any young person in the world and needs very basic things like affection and connection with others. Having lost his mother very young and having to figure things out, he's understandably angry. But beneath this anger is a person like a person anywhere else in the world with very similar needs. Some people say the film's about this angry young man that turns good, but I don't see it that way. I see it as a vulnerable person, someone who has adopted a mask and retreated into silence as a means of protecting himself from really dealing with the trauma of being an orphan. It's also about what it's like to have to raise oneself without parental guidance and a social network and so on. So what happens to Tsotsi is really a meltdown. As the mask is slowly chipped away, he's left feeling extremely exposed and vulnerable. So I think the specifics of South Africa are also that we have this tremendous music, theses shantytowns that people haven't seen often, and we have the suburbs behind the walls and all of these things are both shocking and unique. I think the greatness of Athol Fugard's characters is that they are profoundly human and I think people all over the world are more similar that we like to think. Emotional needs are very similar. If someone loses a mother at a young age it's a traumatic experience I don't care where you come from. The opportunity to tell that universal story with the specifics of Johannesburg with the energy of South Africa and in the language coming off the streets all give the films a regionality and a flavor and an energy that has not been seen very often.

BA: What else do you like about Fugard's work?

GH: What's great about all of Fugard's work is the socio-political-economic environment in which his characters find themselves and which is brought to the fore not because he uses characters as mouthpieces for a political point of view but precisely because he looks at people existing within a political or social or economic reality and tells their story. The audience is made aware of the world these characters inhabit not because they are being preached to by the characters but because they can see how the world is shaping those characters whether those characters realize it or not. In updating Tsotsi to the present, I have the opportunity to present the current struggle that faces South Africa mainly the issues of poverty, issues of HIV AIDS, the discrepancy that exists between the have's and have not's'all of these challenges are what we still have to deal with. So those realities are present in the film but they are not at the forefront of the story. The forefront of the story is a young person trying to make his way in the world against some pretty tough odds and making decisions that will either positively or negatively affect his life. In other words there are two things at play that shape our lives: the things we don't choose'where we're born, what economic circumstances we're born into, what our nationality is, usually what our religion is, what our race is, what our gender is'we arrive kind of as a package deal with a lot of things thrust upon us. But then as we move through life we're presented with certain choices and this is true of every person and the way we respond to those choice or behave in relationships or choose to interact with others further shapes an affects our lives. So what appealed to me is searching for what is most human and most universally human within characters that at first blush appear to be very different from us. That's what's important about art, stories that ask you simply to reflect on lives that you might have had had the roll of the dice been slightly different. When we watch stories we learn empathy, we learn compassion and hopefully we achieve some sort of understanding.

BA: What was your visual approach to the material?

GH: City of God is often raised in these discussions because when we were going to make Tsots i we were told if you're not using names and you want to have this sort of authentic flavor then presumably you'll shoot it handheld on 16mm gritty film stock. That's how these ghetto movies get done. But why? Is Tsotsi a documentary, the answer is obviously no, so why does a documentary-style define a film shot in the ghetto? Why can't we say that this is a classical mythological tale about a young person encountering mentor figures in a classic mythological sense, where instead of meeting Yoda he meets a three-month-old baby, a woman, a man in a wheelchair and a father figure, and through this series of encounters he achieves a moment of self awareness and clarity if only for a brief moment. So if this is a mythic tale, what style might be appropriate? It seems to me that just because it's a ghetto movie, it doesn't mean it doesn't have an epic sense or there isn't an epic quality to it. It seems to me that the city broods over the entire film and is almost like a character that is indifferent to Tsotsi and that he is one story out of millions. So to use the widescreen to give that sense of his smallness against the vastness of this backdrop was appealing. Also I didn't want my presence felt in the room. When you feel a camera, handheld and moving, you feel someone is making a movie. And it seems to me that this was far too intimate a story for us to feel the presence of a director in the room. So what makes or breaks the story is whether you believe in the transition that happens in the mind of the protagonist. Because there's minimal dialogue, you need to feel these struggles going on behind his eyes, which means you want to allow the audience to look into his eyes as much as possible. That seemed best achieved by keeping eyelines [how the actors are looking into the camera] very tight to lens, which means that his eyeline is only a flick away from looking directly into the lens which would be looking directly into the audience, which means the audience is looking directly or almost directly right into his eyes which is where so much is happening. It also means that I can afford to let the camera be still.

BA: Some people say the film is na?ve in its message, how do you respond?

GH: Some people would say that this is a na?ve idealistic view. I would accept that it's an idealistic view but not that it's na?ve and the reason that I would not accept that it's na?ve is because it's frankly insulting to suggest that those of us who have lived through violent crimes and the traumas of violent crimes are na?ve. I mean I've been mugged, my mother's been car jacked twice. I don't know many South Africans who don't have their eyes wide open to what it's like to be exposed to some sort of violence. The question is whether we choose to be cynical about it or not. -----

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