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Hei Tsotsi!

January 16, 2006

South African cineastes have a hard time – we have a visually striking country with lots of amazing, unique stories. It should be a moviemakers dream – cheap labour, a wide range of sets, even the novelty factor.

But it seems that South Africans just can’t make movies. There have been a few decent efforts recently: Promised Land was worth watching, as was Forgiveness, but mostly it’s pure, anguished drek.

Why do we specialise in tortured political dramas and mindless comedy? This is not a problem confined to movies: if I come across another South African novel about forbidden love under apartheid, I’ll scream. Did nothing else ever happen in this country?

Where’s the great South African road movie, with dagga dof bohemians coming undone in the Karoo?

Where’s the gritty crime thriller? (Stander doesn’t count, since it was made by Americans)

Well. Rest assured: the definitive South African movie has finally been made, and released internationally.

I went to see Tsotsi in Glasgow the other night.

What an amazing, powerful film. For those who know nothing about it, maybe saying it’s South Africa’s answer to Trainspotting or City of God will give you a picture.

It’s about a township gangster in Soweto who hijacks a car, finds a baby in the back seat and decides to look after it.

What really works about the movie is that the protagonist is a black thug – a tsotsi – who really is the demon, the shadow of the new South Africa. Like many people, I have had similar characters hold guns to my head and threaten my life, and there’s a visceral shock of recognition when we first see Tsotsi.

But in the film he is humanised. While we hate everything he does, we quickly come to understand why he behaves the way he does, and realise that the knee jerk suppression that most commentators on our out of control crime problem go for – more cops, less crime – will never solve the problem.

Also, Tsotsi has an experience in the film that allows him to beginning a process of redemption (assuming he doesn’t get shot by the police). Much – too much, I think – is made of it in this New Agey review. But the transformative process, Tsotsi’s chance at healing, is what lifts the film out of the gritty verite of similar films, without being in any way unbelievable.

Hey, if I was tsotsi, I’d rob me too. And when you realise that, it opens something inside you.

The film also has a powerful, pulsing Kwaito sound track, and the cinematography is just right – for an hour and a half I forgot I was in Scotland and I was back in dusty Jozi.

But what I liked most was the use of Tsotsitaal as the main language of the protagonists. It’s the first time I have seen this in a feature length film, and it’s good to see my favourite language getting so much prominence.

Go see it today.

UPDATE: Not everyone was impressed with Tsotsi. Read what some genuine Tsotsis thought of the film.
UPDATE: Here is an excellent analysis of the political issues the film raises.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Do Kwang permalink
    January 19, 2006 3:30 pm

    Hi
    I just spotted a comment of yours on Ivor Price’s blog about Afrikaans Wikipedia. Can you help me find out more about it? Is there a URL or something?
    Thanks and ciao
    Oh, and you MUST see A Boy Called Twist – SA movie – modern version of Oliver Twist set among Cape Town street children – absolutely horrendous. I have never been more embarrassed in my life!

  2. Do Kwang permalink
    January 19, 2006 3:30 pm

    HiI just spotted a comment of yours on Ivor Price’s blog about Afrikaans Wikipedia. Can you help me find out more about it? Is there a URL or something?Thanks and ciaoOh, and you MUST see A Boy Called Twist – SA movie – modern version of Oliver Twist set among Cape Town street children – absolutely horrendous. I have never been more embarrassed in my life!

  3. Ian permalink
    January 20, 2006 7:59 pm

    Hmm, I’ve just realised that Tsotsi hasn’t even opened here in Cape Town yet :( I was invited to a screening at Sithengi, but that was just a once off.

    Johannes – the Afrikaans wikipedia is at af.wikipedia.org – mail me (there’s a link off my blog) if you want any more details, as I show off my bad Afrikaans on occasion by contributing there.

    Also, why did you think A Boy Called Twist was horrendous? A bad film, or horrendous what it depicted? I thought it was pretty good actually.

  4. Ian permalink
    January 20, 2006 7:59 pm

    Hmm, I’ve just realised that Tsotsi hasn’t even opened here in Cape Town yet :( I was invited to a screening at Sithengi, but that was just a once off.Johannes – the Afrikaans wikipedia is at af.wikipedia.org – mail me (there’s a link off my blog) if you want any more details, as I show off my bad Afrikaans on occasion by contributing there.Also, why did you think A Boy Called Twist was horrendous? A bad film, or horrendous what it depicted? I thought it was pretty good actually.

  5. Andy Mo permalink
    January 25, 2006 1:23 pm

    Apart from our poor scripts – its our actors that are the pits. They all seem to have graduated from some drama school, they can’t act naturally, its all overemphasised, overly elocuted posturing. Thats why Theron and the Tsotsi main actor do so well – they are naturals, not stage actors. Andy Mo

  6. Andy Mo permalink
    January 25, 2006 1:23 pm

    Apart from our poor scripts – its our actors that are the pits. They all seem to have graduated from some drama school, they can’t act naturally, its all overemphasised, overly elocuted posturing. Thats why Theron and the Tsotsi main actor do so well – they are naturals, not stage actors. Andy Mo

  7. thakadu permalink
    February 14, 2006 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the great review. I wasnt going to bother for the exact reasons you give, but based on your writeup I will go and see it! it only comes out in the US on 24 Feb.

  8. thakadu permalink
    February 14, 2006 2:08 pm

    Thanks for the great review. I wasnt going to bother for the exact reasons you give, but based on your writeup I will go and see it! it only comes out in the US on 24 Feb.

  9. Dylan permalink
    February 24, 2006 1:54 am

    Ja, I’m looking forward to the one about the dagga-dof bohemians coming undone in the middle of the Karoo. I can relate. Maybe I’ll take it upon myself to tell the story when I (eventually) get back home.

  10. Dylan permalink
    February 24, 2006 1:54 am

    Ja, I’m looking forward to the one about the dagga-dof bohemians coming undone in the middle of the Karoo. I can relate. Maybe I’ll take it upon myself to tell the story when I (eventually) get back home.

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