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Movie Review by Ania Kalinowska

Starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano

Director: Gavin Hood

Unlike most predecessors that depend on racially motivated, Apartheid-inspired stories, TSOTSI abandons the race card altogether and deals with current issues that are not only prevalent in South Africa, but applicable anywhere else on earth. It is perhaps the relevance of its themes that makes it so understandable, and therefore approachable, in a worldwide context – despite the fact that it is performed solely in a South African township vernacular.

Crime, class and calamity are some of the broader topics featured here; the crucial element that everything hinges on, however, lies in the simple story and the credibility of its characters.

The film is about 19 year-old Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a thug who disregards life with astonishing ease, whose emotional range matches that of a sheet of corrugated iron, and whose stare is as cold-blooded as it is frightening. Tsotsi and his group of ruffians survive on crime. Stealing, carjacking, and killing are daily affairs, staples that they have known for most of their lives.

They reside in Soweto – a huge township outside Johannesburg – where infinite rows of shacks stand sorrowfully against the backdrop of a smoky, golden sky. Thanks to the cinematography, there is a kind of disturbing beauty in this poverty.

A series of events leads Tsotsi to a wealthy Johannesburg suburb, where he shoots a woman and steals her car. It is only after he has driven away that he hears the baby in the back seat. Once the initial shock wears off, he puts the infant in a shopping bag and makes a run for it, baby in tow. The incident begins a process of discovery, confrontation and ultimate redemption.

Hey, wena!

If you want to experience life in a shantytown without ever physically stepping in one, this is the film to see. TSOTSI was shot in a real township, but it doesn’t rely on this factor for its striking realism. It is the punchy script, deafening Kwaito music beats and timely, robust camera style that really delivers the full-force attack of uncanny authenticity. The environment complements the characters that live in it, in turn helping to make them exist as 3-dimensional people.

Wat maak jy, sonnie?

Of course, there are dangers here. The troubled-man-meets-baby scheme can so easily slip into the sentimentally shallow side of the dramatic spectrum. Remarkably, that does not happen. Vulnerability – an integral part of the story and a struggling force within the characters – is not abused; nobody gets overwhelmed by schmaltzy renditions of emotion. And yet, there is a genuinely powerful feeling behind everything that happens.

In a way it’s all about seeing the light. Tsotsi has a long way to go. Maybe he doesn’t fully confront his past. He might not be a completely changed man. But at least he realises that there is hope. And hope, on that scale, delivered with such precision, can be grasped by any audience, anywhere.

Yebo, its shup like that…

This is a violent coming-of-age affair that briefly nods back to Fernando Meirelles’s CITY OF GOD. Adapted from Athol Fugard’s 1950s-set novel, it has been inventively crafted into modern day relevance, thereby astutely commentating on topics hotter than the 2006 South African sun. But most importantly, its understandable story and established acting credibility hold the power.

EISH, serriasly!

TSOTSI is an inspiring movie. The fact that award-givers have recognised it as such raises the bar for the South African film industry. Then again, a motion picture that can be so drenched in South African flavour and so universal at the same time deserves to be celebrated.

This is not only a good South African film, it is a good film.

5 out of 6 stars