New South African film 'Tsotsi' resonates at home

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.

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.

Amazingly, one of the thieves even reportedly told Gewer, "I saw "tsotsi". It's a good film. My heart is sore for you. Please forgive me for doing this."

Then they escaped with the car and Mr. Gewer's passport and air ticket to the US for the Oscars, all of which were later recovered.

For all its focus on townships and black life, the film was adapted by a white South African director named Gavin Hood from a novel written in the 1960s by white South African writer Athol Fugard.

Two key differences between the original novel and the film are emblematic of South Africa's dramatic changes.

First, in the novel, it's unclear who the baby's parents are. In the film, however, the baby's parents are shown - and are wealthy and black. This puts the drama's focus squarely onto the country's new central societal issue - class and the gap between rich and poor.

'Tsotsi' tackles class 'apartheid'

In South Africa today, "There's a new kind of apartheid," observes Brian Letlhabane, an assistant to Tsotsi's director. "It's about class now."

According to the UN, South Africa has the world's sixth biggest gap between rich and poor - behind countries such as Sierra Leone and Brazil.

One example of the gap: Roughly 40 percent of South Africa's 44 million people are unemployed, yet more new BMWs are bought here per capita than in any country except Germany.

[Spoiler alert: If you don't want to learn a key part of the movie's ending, don't read the next two paragraphs.]

A second difference: In the novel, Tsotsi dies in the end. In the movie he survives. In a recent interview, Mr. Hood, the film's director, explains the change.

At the time the book was written, it was appropriate for Tsotsi to die because "segregation was being more and more enforced," Hood says, and "things felt hopeless."

But in the film, in the final moments, Tsotsi has brought the baby back to his parents, and he exhibits an "extreme moment of vulnerability, remorse, and emotional breakdown." This is, "for me, the modern triumph of South Africa," Hood says.

"Forgiveness, redemption, honest communication" are issues "South Africans more than almost any other nation ever have explored" in the apartheid and post-apartheid experience, he explains.

And "those sorts of themes - 'What does it mean to ask for forgiveness?' and 'What does it mean to give it?' - those are the themes ... buried deep within "Tsotsi" yet applied to South Africa's current class-focused context.

Besides the film's deeper themes, it helps that black-township music icon Zola plays a gangster in the film.

His brash, pounding music - a homegrown South African genre called Kwaito - permeates the soundtrack.

And "Tsotsi" isn't just getting buzz in South Africa. It was released on US screens Feb. 24 by Miramax.

Ben Affleck even showed up for its Los Angeles premiere. And industry magazine Entertainment Weekly predicts it'll win the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

It's all good news for Mbolekwa, the 50-Cent fan, who says he's hoping for sequels: "I want 'Tsotsi' 2, 3, and 4," he says, before strolling back into the bustle of a Joburg afternoon.

Matt Bradley contributed reporting for this story from Boston.

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