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New South African film 'Tsotsi' resonates at home

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2006


In the bustling heart of South Africa's biggest metropolis, where street vendors hawk their wares from wooden stalls and minibus taxis jostle for passengers, Tuesday afternoons aren't usually prime moviegoing time.

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But at the local cinema, the 2:15 showing of "Tsotsi" is sold out. Some fans are even perched in the aisles as they watch the story of a South African gangster who discovers a gurgling baby in the back seat of a BMW he's just hijacked.

Tsotsi is tipped by Hollywood observers to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture, and crowds like this one have made the film a box-office smash in its native land.

The film's arrival has, in fact, become a kind of cultural moment for many here. It explores how apartheid-era lessons of forgiveness and redemption apply to pressing issues of poverty and class. And in a nation plagued by crime, it asks: Is there decency inside everyone - even an uneducated, unemployed thug?

"Tsotsi" opened here on Feb. 3 and it's box office take was 250 percent higher during its opening weekend than last year's Oscar-nominated film from South Africa, "Yesterday."

And pirated "Tsotsi" DVDs are in hot demand on Joburg's streets.

"It's so different than most movies about South Africa, which are all about AIDS, race, and [the apartheid] struggle, struggle, struggle," says Sandile Mbolekwa, a college student with American rapper 50 Cent emblazoned on his sweatshirt. "So many movies want to take us back" to the days of apartheid, he says after emerging from the cinema in downtown Johannesburg. "This is something fresh. That's why it's getting the love."

Finally, something new

Indeed, "Tsotsi" is different from many recent films made in and about South Africa.

In 2004, the movie "Drum" was about an 1950s apartheid-era crusading journalist uncovering political wrong-doing, starring, Hollywood hunk Taye Diggs. "Red Dust," also from 2004, is about the post-apartheid truth-and-reconciliation process and stars American Hillary Swank.

And despite having major South African star Leleti Khumalo, "Yesterday," wasn't a big hit here, in part because it's about a rural mother dying of AIDS, a disease which still isn't widely discussed because of cultural stigmas surrounding it.

"Tsotsi," by contrast, stars South African Presley Chweneyagae, who previously only acted in community theater and school plays. Most of the movie is in street-gang slang called tsotsi-taal. ("Tsotsi" means gangster or thug in this slang - and is pronounced TOT-si.) And it's set in Joburg's gritty black townships.

"It's a reflection of every black man's life in South Africa," says Mr. Mbolekwa, the 50-Cent fan. "Yeah, that's how the guys in the shacks live," adds Owen Sibiya, a dread-locked twentysomething in a Che Guevara shirt.

A little too realistic?

It's such a realistic reflection of South African life, in fact, that the film's director of photography was recently held up in an incident eerily similar to the film's hijacking scene.

On a rainy night, while riding in a silver BMW, similar to the one in the movie, Lance Gewer was attacked in Joburg by three thugs.