Imagine shaking a can of carbonated soda for three hours, then popping its top. The ensuing eruption of fizz and foam might describe an afternoon chat with Tsotsi director Gavin Hood.
A lanky, 42-year old white male from South Africa, Hood’s explosive, unbridled enthusiasm defines carpe diem. Re-enacting a moment from his riveting, thoughtful film, the expressive director reaches forward and places a hand on my shoulder. He’s animated and engaging. In another refreshing display of spontaneity, he reveals a mischievous, Jack Black-caliber grin, and proclaims, “This is a fun interview!”
Speaking with a forceful English accent, Hood raises his eyebrows, grins, and extends both arms to emphasize a point. Dressed casually in black t-shirt and jeans, the director also sports a matching mane of thick, dark hair. But he’s anything but Goth-dour. Hood’s energized, force-of-nature personality is a welcome contrast to the flat Seattle surroundings, where an epidemic of Seasonal Affective Disorder has materialized alongside record rainfall.
Hood’s alert, high-strung demeanor is especially impressive, considering he spent the previous evening hosting a press screening of “Tsotsi” at Capitol Hill’s Harvard Exit Theatre. The event marked his film’s first showing since being nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Hood is still giddy from the announcement. “They don’t give you a heads-up,” he explains of first hearing the news. “You just turn on your T.V. like everyone else, and know that you’re in with a chance. There were 57 films in the category looking for five nominations. They read out four films, and we were the last one. Number five. So my heart was in my throat. It hit me harder than I thought it would.”
Hood closes his eyes, as if revisiting the moment. “It always sounds a little indulgent to say that one was very emotional about hearing this. But the truth is that there’s more riding on it than just, ‘Isn’t that nice for you?’ One’s real feeling is one of relief. And joy. A lot of people have taken a big risk on a movie like this. There’s money at stake with investors. There are distributors who have taken a risk by putting the movie out there. So many people are happy that you get that nomination. Part of you just goes, ‘Oh – thank God they’re happy!’”
Hood shakes his head, sighs, and looks me straight in the eye. “You know what the problem with this business is? It’s feast or famine. You’re either dying, or when you hit, you hit big. When you don’t, it’s very painful.”
“Tsotsi” strives for resonance over big-bang spectacle and takes chances with an uncommonly hopeful, daringly life-affirming approach to its streetwise material. It’s clear that Hood makes movies not to make loads of cash, but to make a difference. All the same, he knows how the game is played.
“Now my investors feel like they have a shot at getting their money back,” he continues. “They think that maybe people will see this movie, even though we don’t have international names. So these awards resonate on many levels. They are wonderful acknowledgment for the cast and crew. They generate tremendous excitement in the media at home, because we don’t make a lot of films. It’s encouraging to your industry. So you feel good. And you feel relieved.”
Hood’s impassioned stream of words ends abruptly. As if worried that his manic gift for gab has spiraled out of control, he leans forward slightly and asks, “Am I making sense?”
Even though he’s the subject and not the journalist, Hood is considerate enough to pepper his dialogue with several similar questions, prompting my participation. Is the film too glossy? Did you feel involved in the story? Were you drawn in? Hood creates a lively, two-way rapport, with nary a shred of ego in sight. This mastery of social skills suggests why Hood is the perfect director for “Tsotsi,” a film about how interaction and understanding lead to redemption.
The title means “young street tough,” and it’s spoken in what Hood describes as “Tsotsi talk,” a unique hybrid of 11 south African languages including English, Dutch, and Zulu. It’s also the name of Hood’s key onscreen presence. The director’s film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel involves a black, ghetto-roaming thug fighting away bittersweet memories of better times, on the mean shantytown streets of South Africa. Through awkward relationships with a stolen infant and young mother, his veneer of brutal machismo is torn away and replaced with compassion and understanding.
Meanwhile, “Tsotsi” proves a calmer, more intimate film than many recent onscreen forays into street gang life. Hood might be a whirlwind force of nature in person, but his filmmaking style avoids the more rough and tumble, roller coaster movements that defined “City of God,” Fernando Meirelles’ Brazilian slum epic. Instead, intimate facial expressions and massive wide screen landscapes are applied for emotional heft.
“It’s tremendously flattering to be associated with a film that did that well and was so innovative,” Hood proclaims, describing comparisons between “City of God” and “Tsotsi.”
“But the reason I wanted to shoot in my own style was because if I shot in that style, I’m imitating Fernando Meirelles, who already did brilliantly with it, as did Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu with ‘Amorres Perros.’ The question I asked myself was, just because you’re shooting in a shantytown, is there only one way to do this? What if we shot in a classical style, and allowed the environment to be gritty, rather than “gritty up” the environment – which is already gritty – by having gritty film stock? The risk was that people would say, ‘It’s not gonna reveal the shanty. It’s gonna be too glossy.’”
“Tsotsi” guides viewers through a sea of impoverished slums surrounding the urban high-rises of nearby cities. Chimney smoke drifts over miles of tin roofs sheltering thousands of matchbox huts. Clotheslines crisscross between dirt-encrusted alleyways. In the distance, city skyscrapers loom like radioactive terrors from some Japanese monster movie. “I used wide-screen for some shots, like where Tsotsi is walking on a railway line towards you,” explained Hood. “You feel that huge city behind him, and he’s this little single figure. You get the feeling that there are millions of these stories out there, and that the city is a sort of character – a big presence that has formed him and shaped his life. There’s an epic quality. This extremity is what gives the city both its dynamism and its tragedy.”
Hood’s efforts to convey a sense of enormity and social diversity are convincingly translated into his film. The two major cities casting shadows over the movie’s sea of impoverished masses – Soweto and Johannesburg – share a combined population of over 8 million people. The Africa-based filmmaker likens the area to Los Angeles, with one metropolis spilling into the other. Scruffy low-income communities interconnect larger towns, like strands of an intricate spider’s web. Toss it all together – the gloss of corporate downtown, the grime of trash-strewn villages, the slick “haves” and the sweat-drenched “have-nots” – and Hood claims, “It’s ten million people in that world.”
The images of street life in “Tsotsi” certainly aren’t pristine, but they take on a refreshing aesthetic beauty when shot through Hood’s artful lens. The interior of a shack, for instance, appears as a fluid mixture of rusty reds and oranges. In another scene, cement pipes inhabited by homeless orphans create a unique symmetry that’s equally pleasing to the eye. “I had a background in stills photography before I ever came to cinematography,” reveals Hood. “My dad was a very clean stills photographer. I tend to like images that are well-composed and well-lit.”
The unique look of “Tsotsi” has earned the film an impressive list of admirers. In addition to the Oscar recognition, Hood’s film has also been nominated for a BAFTA award, a Screen International Award, and a Golden Globe. Meanwhile, it took home the People’s Choice Award at 2005’s Toronto Film Festival. “I’m relieved that for most people, doing it this way seems to have paid off,” Hood says of the acclaim. “I mean, you do these things, and you justify them to yourself. But of course, people may not agree with your choice. Some people say that the only way to film a ghetto movie is with handheld cameras. But there’s never just one way of doing something. In the end, it’s all fiction.”
Hood also loves the human face, and its power to convey the type of complex emotion that dialogue simply can’t match. With few words, 19 year-old actor Presley Chweneyagae conveys deep-set, defensive rage melting into a more diplomatic, even-tempered demeanor. After stealing a car from an upper crust, affluent neighborhood, the callous Tsotsi is startled to find a delicate, cooing infant boy in the vehicle’s back seat. In an anxiety-fueled freakout, he abandons the car and considers leaving its precious infant cargo as well. But some deep-set, internal need prompts him to “adopt” the newborn.
“Tsotsi” follows the unusual dynamic that develops between brute and baby. The gradual transformation of Tsotsi into a concerned surrogate father is communicated not with pressured rapport or gangland mayhem, but with subtle facial changes. His eyes convey stress and uninformed confusion as he assembles diapers from old newspaper. Later, the inexperienced caregiver finds that he’s ill equipped to provide breast milk. He enlists the aid of Miriam (Terry Pheto), a female neighbor already tending to an infant of her own. Again, this second relationship is painted in relatively silent strokes. Initially held at gunpoint and forced to nurse the kidnapped child, Miriam’s eyes communicate an initial repulsion of Tsotsi. Later, she softens, developing a reluctant tolerance for this rather pathetic wannabe dad.
Suggesting that his film strives to captures the micro moments of slum life rather than the macro whole, Hood returns to the “City of God” comparison. “What’s at the center of Tsotsi is a very one-on-one relationship between a boy and a baby, and then a one-on-one relationship between a boy and a girl. ‘City of God’ is much more of an ensemble piece, about a bunch of kids quite out of control, which is why Meirelles’ style is appropriate for that movie. He’s trying to keep up with them. But I felt that this story was more intimate. I wanted the audience to not just observe the craziness of the people, but feel that with a different role of the dice, they might have actually have been one of those people. What we’re really trying to achieve is empathy.”
Empathy, in fact, is the pivotal ability achieved by Chweneyagae’s troubled tough guy in “Tsotsi.” Through his relationships with a trio of fellow gang members, we sense his blossoming awareness of other peoples’ needs. Boston (Mothusi Magano, from “Hotel Rwanda”), the most educated and philosophical of the bunch, denounces the gang’s role in an early murder. Rather than allow a guilty conscience to disrupt the group’s self-serving routine of predatory theft, Tsotsi beats Boston senseless. Later in the film, however, Boston forgives his attacker. “That moment where Boston reaches across,” explains Hood, describing the characters’ reconciliation, “he doesn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re old buddies again.’ He’s still saying, ‘you did a terrible thing.’
“Forgiveness does not require forgetting. It’s saying, ‘I hate what you did, but I don’t hate you.’ That’s what we’re blessed with, and maybe that’s why these themes resonate. They are themes of redemption. And they require the theme of personal responsibility, and the willingness to truly show remorse. I think that maybe the reason ‘Tsotsi’ works is because Presley does such a superb job at the end of the film, showing remorse just in his mere demeanor. I think we feel that he’s genuinely sorry for things that he has done. Yet it’s also very understandable as to why he was a very angry young man.”
As “Tsotsi” proceeds, its title character sheds his past, more combative skin in favor of a newfound appreciation for others. After being insulted by a subway-inhabiting, wheelchair-bound beggar, he stalks the man beneath a freeway overpass and considers revenge. The moment is a delicate, suspenseful serenade of threatening percussive rattles and the occasional whoosh of overhead traffic.
“That scene was a wonderful opportunity to work with the sound designer, who did a lovely job of creating that sound of a truck going over in the distance, and the rattles of the highway above. Then the composers came in and added some small spikes of sound. I admired their restraint, because often there’s a temptation for a composer to show off, and flood the scene. There’s a little rattle .. it sounds like nothing – but it helps. Then, somewhere a truck goes over – ‘whooomph!’ We worked very hard to have that sound rumble from the back speaker, and then disappear.”
Beyond the ominous, impressive sound effects, however, the scene’s ultimately peaceful outcome defines another level in which “Tsotsi” is original and fresh: it’s a remarkably hopeful film. Tsotsi refrains from attacking the man. Why? Through carefully placed flashback scenes, Hood provides us with the gangster’s childhood memories, one involving an injured dog. Tsotsi remembers the animal’s agony, likening its crippled form to that of the transient in front of him. Clearly, his comparison of damaged canine and disabled human being defines Tsotsi’s blooming decency.
“It’s the pivotal transition scene,” confirms Hood. “He’s had a crack happen with this baby. Something’s happened – now he tries to return to type. For a moment, he almost does. But he can’t. After that scene, he can’t go back to doing what he was doing.”
Then, there’s Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe, whom Hood claims is Cheweneyagae’s real-life best friend). Another of Tsotsi’s young criminal cronies, Butcher is the antithesis of this transformation. Fond of piercing victims’ hides with an ice pick, this antisocial psychopath represents a more ruthless side of the street thug continuum. Hood is asked why some outlaws, like Tsotsi, eventually escape the cycle of violence and re-route themselves onto a more constructive life path, while the Butchers of the world seem less pliable – and destined for premature deaths.
“I think that’s a really good question,” he comments, “and I don’t have an answer. It seems that no matter what economic background you look at, somewhere along the line there’s this type of person. So poverty is not the only cause of crime. So how do we explain the Ken Lays of the world? How do we explain serial killers who come from middle class backgrounds? We don’t really have a handle on this. We want to say that the environment causes everything. It’s this argument of nature versus nurture. But to what extent do some people have a lower conscience?
“So Butcher is a necessary presence in the film, in order for it not to sound completely mushy. But the tragedy of Butcher is that this kid has probably never known a day of love in his life. Whereas Tsotsi has. Up until the age of nine, his mom loved him, and he’s blocked it out, because she’s gone. He really wants to talk about his mom. But who is he gonna say that to, and not be laughed at? And he lacks the education to even articulate that.
“This is why he is attracted to the educated guy, Boston. As the movie explains, Tsotsi first met Boston by pulling him out of the street, and taking him home, because he needs someone to talk to. He doesn’t know that, but Boston is his intellectual equal. The only difference is that Boston is educated and he’s not. Boston’s intellect is attractive to Tsotsi. It’s a very odd relationship.
“People ask me why Tsotsi pulled him out of the gutter. I say, because he subconsciously has a need to talk. That’s why he gets this baby. It’s almost like he wants to communicate with something that’s safe, and won’t laugh at him. He won’t admit that he has that need, because the environment in which he lives would laugh at him. Also, when he first looks at the baby, it doesn’t turn away in fear, either. It’s, like, ‘Dude, what are you gonna do? I’m stuck in here! You gonna take me out and feed me? I’m not afraid of you!’”
While Tsotsi bumbles, Inspector Clouseau-style, through feeble attempts to raise the child, its distraught parents facilitate an active search. The film provides little detail concerning what the concerned mother and father do for a living, but it does suggest that they represent a huge, rising middle class of black South Africans. “I didn’t want to make it too specific,” Hood says of the parents’ portrayal. “I wanted them to be as representative as possible of people of that class – including white people. That couple could be a white couple, or could be an Indian couple. There are 1.5 million Indian people in South Africa. They could be a Chinese couple. I wanted them to be black, so that the issue of race would not be what the film would seem to be about.
“The issues of the film are class, and the discrepancy between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and how we have to close that gap. By living behind these walls, we’re not gonna feel okay pretending that the other is not there. The other is there, and we know it. We have to step out from behind our wall and into the street. And we have to do it on a global level. Here we are in the States, where people keep ‘bashing through our wall.’ How are we going to deal with this? We don’t really know. There is no easy answer to this question. But one thing’s for sure. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t pretend that the other – whatever form the other takes – is not there. The world becomes unstable when you shut off from one another, live in denial, and pretend that your way is the only way.”
Hood’s phrases – “breaking through our wall,” “pretending that your way is the only way,” and “the other,” conjure forth images of 9/11, connecting the tragedy to his call for global understanding. In case the link was not made implicit enough, Hood adds the following. “Mr. Bin Laden is wrong. But to confront him by saying, ‘Our way is the only way,’ is to do what he’s doing! No way is the only way!
“We need to engage in the gray zone. This notion of good and evil is actually un-helpful, I think. Because most of us are a little flawed, and a bit confused. The best thing we can do with each other is say, ‘I don’t quite know why I’m here. Do you? No? Well, we need each other, that’s one thing we know.’ Humanity does not survive well without helping one another. Without engaging with each other. Without keeping the dialogue going, always, so that we don’t misunderstand and start to hate each other.”
Hood quiets down, allowing for another moment of awkward silence. He flashes me a look of self-conscious guilt, as if pondering whether he’s said the right thing. “I’m getting too political about it,” he claims. “All of those ideas are floating around, and should be felt. But at its heart, the film is a coming of age story of a young person who could be from anywhere in the world, is angry at the world for the way it’s treated him, and at some point has to release that anger. On one hand, there’s a social comment. On the other, there’s a personal journey. As much as the world is wrong, Tsotsi only really frees himself when he stops being quite so angry and takes a certain responsibility.”
There’s another subtext lurking behind the very personal character studies in “Tsotsi.” In many scenes – on subway walls, freeway banners, and walls posters – is the public service announcement, “HIV affects us all.” According to the South African AIDS Foundation, 21.5% of the country’s population is estimated to be infected. While the film doesn’t blatantly state it, onscreen images of homeless orphans and ill, bedridden mothers suggest that the AIDS virus has become so matter-of-fact that it’s never even discussed.
Hood discusses both the AIDS and orphan epidemics in South Africa with sad eyes. But in keeping with his optimistic nature, the filmmaker suggests that there is hope on both fronts. “There are kids living anywhere they can, which is horrible. This HIV, and the number of orphans….”
He stops, shakes his head, then continues. “But having said that, there’s also lots of kids in orphanages. My sister, God bless her, is an architect, and two afternoons a week she goes to an orphanage to play with kids who are HIV positive, and have lost their parents. There’s a lot of good work like that. It’s not all dreadful. But the problem is large. There are a lot of good people doing a lot. At last we have an acknowledgment from the government. They are giving out anti-retroviral drugs now, which they weren’t for many years. The government was in denial about this.
“We’ve gotten a lot wrong over the years, but I think one of the things South Africans got right was… we could have plunged into a terrible civil war. And white South Africa is very lucky that Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk decided to sit down and talk, and have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Human beings have a need to forgive. We’re very willing to forgive at a certain point, provided the other person really feels remorse. That’s just human.”
The director has returned to the theme of empathy that “Tsotsi” embraces. “It’s like the scene in the film where Boston forgives Tsotsi. If you say sorry to me and I think you don’t mean it, that almost more insulting that if you didn’t say sorry at all. But when you truly mean it, and I sense that, that’s when I reach out and put my hand on your shoulder and say, ‘Okay.’”
It’s here that, the filmmaker extends his right hand and places it on my shoulder. Then, Gavin Hood excuses himself to prepare for a photo shoot, and I return to the rainy streets of Seattle. With gray clouds pressing in from above and Hood’s rousing presence no longer in the vicinity, the energy level drops from ten to two, and the specter of Seasonal Affective Disorder again reigns supreme.