DIRECTOR GAVIN HOOD'S STATEMENT
In bringing this compelling story to the screen, my intention is to make a taught, well-paced, psychological thriller that transports its audience into a world of radical contrasts. Skyscrapers and shacks, wealth and poverty, vibrant colour and darkness, love and hate, revenge and forgiveness, violent anger and gentle compassion: all collide in a film that is, ultimately, a classic story of redemption.
At the beginning of the film, he lead character (the Tsotsi of the title) appears almost irredeemably lost to a loveless life of casual violence. He lives in a shantytown on the outskirts of Johannesburg; a city of 5 million people that pulses with visceral energy and a raw beauty.
Tsotsi is a product of the extremes of this city. Violence is an integral part of his life. He exists without a thought for the future and he avoids any reflection on his past. He lives only in an angry present.
In the style of "Amores Perros" and "City of God", Tsotsi will deal with violence in a frank and realistic way, without in any way glamourising crime or criminal behaviour. The film is driven by a series of violent incidents, but, as director, I did not celebrate or over-hype these events. They happen suddenly and simply. And we are left to focus on the consequences of the violence - on the effect of violence on the lives of the various characters.
All Fugard's characters are profoundly human and their humanity is revealed gradually through the film. As in "Central Station", we should, in the quieter moments of the film, feel a profound intimacy with and between the characters. It has is my intention that, by the end of the film, the audience will find that they have developed a genuine empathy for the characters whose lives may in reality be very different from their own.
The style in which the film is shot matches this intention. I shot Tsotsi on 235, a wide screen format that helps to take us into the scope and scale of the two worlds that Tsotsi traverses. The effect will be further manipulated during the digital phase of post-production to enhance mood and give the film a strong, textured, high contrast feel.
The challenge in this film is to draw the audience into the world of the marginal, anti-social character and have them empathise with him. The camera was not therefore used as an observer that distances us from Tsotsi, but rather as an expression of his point of view. We see what he sees. Move with him as he moves. Feel the world as he feels it. I have shot most close-ups with eye-lines tight to camera - to bring the audience right into the action and into Tsotsi's world. In Tsotsi's dark eyes, we should, in the end, see ourselves.
The production design also supports a world of contrasts. This is emphasized through the use of colour and texture to differentiate the various lives of the characters. Tsotsi exists in a world of minimal colour. This is reflected in the drabness of his shack and in the dark tones of his wardrobe. Miriam on the other hand, despite her poverty, embraces colour in an electric and imaginative way. Her shack is a rich blend of found objects and colourful elements. The difference between Miriam's world and the world of the wealthy Dube's is more one of texture than colour. Miriam's world is made of rough fabrics and natural cottons, the Dube's live a more polished, modern life.
My ultimate goal is to capture the hearts of a young, worldwide audience with a visually striking and dramatically riveting story of betrayal, hope, love and redemption, supported by an irresistible, explosively commercial soundtrack.
The dynamic combination of a classic tragedy and cutting-edge music is intended to ensure that the film will cross continents as a commercially strong, emotionally gripping film with universal audience appeal.
READ AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH GAVIN HOOD AND PRODUCER PAUL RALEIGH
Adapting Fugard's Only Novel
At its heart, Fugard's novel is very much an internal psychological dialogue, particularly of the Tsotsi character who is on an inner journey of awakening and of the rediscovery of his memory as well as the discovery of his own humanity. This, while beautifully explored by Fugard in the novel, posed a number of challenges for writer/director Gavin Hood when writing the screenplay, the foremost being how to convey this internal dialogue through a visual medium. "The beautiful thing about a novel is that you can express in words what a character is thinking, whereas in film you are restricted to dialogue and pictures," says Hood. I chose to use dialogue sparingly and only where most appropriate and poignant and then rely on the camera to catch the character's private moments to convey his inner world. "
In Fugard's novel, the inner journey of the Tsotsi character has much to do with the reawakening of memory and the understanding of his past as a means by which he is able to exorcise the demons that haunt him. In the film, Hood explores a more interesting theme, that of subverted emotions and the idea that it is this lack of expression of emotion that isolates and makes the character less than human. In the film Tsotsi's anger and loneliness are the result of not being able to reach out to those around him and not being able to express emotion. Through the course of the story and through his contact with the baby, with Boston and with Miriam, Tsotsi is finally able to allow emotion and the expression, however gingerly, thereof into his life. "I think that it is Tsotsi's ability, at the end of the film, to express emotion that marks his journey to being a human being again," suggests Hood.
While some of the characters in the novel have of necessity been omitted from the film, Hood has invented a couple of other characters, particularly the parents of the baby that Tsotsi finds, to better drive the story forward. Whereas in the novel it doesn't matter that we don't know the origins of the baby, for the film it seemed to Hood too fortuitous that Tsotsi simply happened upon the baby, particularly in light of the fact that the relationship between Tsotsi and the baby is central to the film. Developing the baby's background also provided Hood with a plot device to eventually return the baby. "The baby is a gift to him, if you will, to rediscover his humanity, but the expression of that humanity is to give back the gift he took and that, I think, allowed us a place to go as a climax," says Hood. "I hope Athol will forgive me for that."
The premise of an innocent baby being abducted by a callous killer from the squatter camps was another concern for the scriptwriter who admits that this is a very risky device. "If we cannot get sympathy from the audience for Tsotsi, we could lose them in the first 20 minutes and would not have a film," says Hood. "You do it on purpose because it seems to me, you explore human emotion best when you put people into situations where their emotions are tested to the most extreme."
"I hope that in working with the actors, working with the cinematographer and everybody involved, that we've been able to generate insights that have the level of poignancy that are Fugard's beautiful novel."
The Roll of The Dice - Walking in Tsotsi's Shoes
Writer/director Gavin Hood has updated Fugard's story, originally set in the 1950's, placing it firmly in the squatter camps and cosmopolitan streets of present day South Africa. Hood's Tsotsi is our contemporary, a Bogeyman who haunts our cities and suburbs, someone we cannot bear to acknowledge, but cannot ignore. He is a product of our society, is one of us, prowling the shadow world that we have created for him through our own callousness and inability to recognise his humanity, his need to be included, to belong.
"What I am trying to do with this film is to say to audiences is 'here's the guy you fear, be him, live his life, experience his roll of the dice and see if you don't find something human in him," says Hood.
Starting with the beauty of Fugard's novel, Hood invites us to step into Tsotsi's shoes and consider that, there but for a different roll of the dice any one of us could be in his position. In exploring how the fickleness of fate and its consequences impact on Tsotsi's life, we are reminded that much of our own experience is also governed by the fall of the dice, thus reinforcing the very tenuous nature of our perceived comfort zones.
"It seems to me that our lives are governed by two things," says Hood. "Fate or the roll of the dice, over which we have no control, who our parents are, what level of social status we are born into and so on are the things of the gods and the no-gods. The second thing that governs our lives is how we respond to the roll of the dice. Some people roll a six and respond so badly that they screw up their lives, while others roll a one and yet manage to lead lives of integrity and creativity, lives of love, lives of decency."
Driven by his anger at the world for the hand he has been dealt, Tsotsi has shut himself off from the world and even those closest to him. He is a feral being who has scant regard for others and has hardened himself as a means of self-preservation. His inability to be touched or to touch, except in violence, further alienates him from the world he subconsciously longs to be a part of, making him an emotional cripple who is unable to recognise that, despite his situation, he has the ability to change his life.
When, after a botched hijacking, Tsotsi becomes the unwitting guardian of a 3-month old baby, his inner world is thrown into turmoil because, for once, he is faced with another living soul that trusts him, has no power to hurt him, does not stand in judgement of him, but most importantly a being that needs him. Contact with Baby Dube slowly erodes Tsotsi's carefully constructed defences, stirring emotions in him that have been denied and suppressed for so long that he has no understanding of how to deal with them. For all his faults, Tsotsi struggles under the burden of an ever increasing need to be decent, to somehow redeem himself and it is this that eventually forces him to reach out to those around him.
Tsotsi's journey to redemption is underpinned by his wrestling with what it means to lead a decent life and what would it take to redeem himself. It is this battle of the soul that Hood found so appealing about Fugard's story as it caused him to ponder what it means to be good, to be decent and also the very nature of redemption. "Does Tsotsi have to become a good man in order to redeem himself?" asks Hood. "Could his redemption not lie simply in being able to have compassion for others who have a worse roll of the dice than he, as in the case of crippled Morris, or a much better roll of the dice as in the case of the wealthy Dube family."
Tsotsi's journey to redemption is a difficult one. Society's high ideals of what it means to be good simply have no resonance in his world. "How do you take someone who has been so angry with the world and living in the moment, and so understandably in the moment, and open up their world without being sentimental, without saying 'we are going to make you good' and without patronizing him," asks Hood. The director offers no easy answers to the problem, but suggests that perhaps the answer lies in a word that Boston uses in the film, the simple word decency. It is Tsotsi's final act of decency, when he returns the baby to its parents, that demonstrates a level of goodness and forces us to accept his ability to change.
In showing Tsotsi's redemption, Hood has remained true to the edginess of Tsotsi's character and avoided grand gestures or sentimentality, instead he carefully draws us into Tsotsi's world and into his mind, showing us not a cold hearted killer, but a 19 year old boy who is as confused, scared and vulnerable as we are. Slowly, imperceptibly and despite our own misgivings, we set aside our prejudices and recognise in this vicious being a level of humanity we never thought possible. In breaking through our prejudices, Hood opens the way for us to put ourselves in Tsotsi's shoes and appreciate his desire to escape that which holds him captive in a world of darkness and pain.
For the director, one of the most difficult aspects was how to play sentiment without getting sentimental and conversely how to be unsentimental and yet still touch people. This was of particular concern when it came to the ending of the film where Tsotsi returns the baby. Hood did not want to suggest that Tsotsi was returning the baby because it was the right thing to do and thereby impose a host of middle class values onto the character, but rather that he was returning the baby because it was a gift that changed his life and restored his dignity and that he now needs to give that gift back to the people he has caused so much pain.
This is an extremely emotionally charged scene marking the culmination of Tsotsi's journey to redemption and could easily have lapsed into unbridled sentimentality. However, by avoiding the obvious pitfalls and not offering a simplistic solution, he has imbued the final scene with great pathos and poignancy. "The ending was a great challenge," says Hood. "I'm hoping that the anguish and the tears that emit from him are not so much tears of pain, although there's huge pain there, but rather that in some bizarre way they are tears of release. I am able to cry, I am able to feel, I have climbed a mountain that takes me from blunted to unsentimental, unapologetic tears rolling down my cheeks, I am human, I feel, I am emotional therefore I am human."
A Gang of Misfits
Tsotsi is a loner and his world is sparsely populated. He has no family and the only company he has are the three members of his gang, Butcher, Die Aap and Boston. Butcher is the most bloodthirsty of Tsotsi's gang and thrives on inflicting pain upon others. He barely tolerates the other gang members and constantly challenges Tsotsi's authority. Butcher is quick to anger, has no respect for anyone and is the most dangerous member of the gang. He has never known a moment of love in his whole life and is probably beyond redemption.
Die Aap is Tsotsi's most loyal follower and they have been together since early childhood when they were street children. Die Aap is stupid and relies on Tsotsi to give his life direction. He relies on Tsotsi for protection and in return is quite happy to take orders from Tsotsi. Rounding out the gang is Boston who is much smarter than his companions and knows it. Despite having attended teacher-training college Boston never sat his final exams. Boston's failure is shrouded in a dark secret for which he drinks continually in an attempt to forget. Boston has no stomach for violence and has an intense dislike for Butcher.
Tsotsi introduces a cast of exceptional new South African actors, many of them making their feature film debut in Tsotsi. Initially there was enormous pressure on Hood to consider high profile international talent so armed with his latest script, he headed for Hollywood where he met with a number of actors who were expressed interest in becoming attached to the project. "I'm proud to say that the script got a very good response in LA and some wonderful actors came forward and, from an ego point of view, it was quite flattering," recalls Hood. However, a persistent inner voice persuaded Hood that this was not the route to take. "Something just kept on saying go home, you know what this needs, you know that this, in order to have a real originality, needs unknown people who will do this film for you in their own language, their own way, who really understand the grit of the place you're working in."
Hood returned to South Africa and embarked on an extensive casting process, auditioning dozens of actors, many of them older than those finally cast. There was much debate around the question of exactly how old the character of Tsotsi should be and while the filmmakers auditioned actors in the 18 - 35 age group, the final decision was to opt for a young Tsotsi. "In the end, it was my casting director, Moonyeenn Lee, who said that we need to go with someone young because an audience could still sympathise with somebody who is a bit out of control at 19, 20 or 21, but by the time someone hits 30, you would expect them to have sorted out their life," comments Hood.
When Presley Chweneyagae walked into the auditions to read for the role of Butcher, he amazed the filmmakers with his portrayal of an angry, dangerous little killer and Hood was convinced that they had found the perfect Butcher. However, Presley then said that he had also prepared something for Tsotsi. Since he had prepared, Presley was allowed to audition for the lead as well. "Presley just spun into this different energy and I sat there with Peter Fudakowski, my producer, watching the monitor and one can overstate these things, but in this case, I really don't need to overstate it, this guy just said 'that's my part' and it was a wonderful thing to see," recalls Hood.
As much as Presley has been raised in some of the tougher areas of South Africa, he is not from the shantytowns, but he understands them and was able to bring this understanding to his role. "I didn't ask him where he is from because I really don't care," recalls Hood. "I asked him what he thought about the script, I asked him what he thought about the character and then having been sure that he and I were in sync on the script and after he'd challenged me and asked me questions, he came back with scenes prepared off the page and just pumped."
Perhaps the most difficult character to cast was Boston because he is very different from the other gang members. Boston has a maturity that the others lack, is much more educated and is perhaps the intellectual of the gang. He was one of the last characters to be cast, but in Mothusi Magano, a young drama student from the University of the Witwatersrand, the filmmakers found exactly the person they were looking for.
Rounding out the gang is Zenzo Ngqobe and Kenneth Nkosi who play Butcher and Die Aap respectively. Zenzo and Presley have been friends since childhood and after the former had been cast as Tsotsi, he suggested that perhaps Zenzo would like to audition for the role of Butcher. "He was a natural choice," says Hood. "He's a brilliant actor and brings a nervous energy and menace to the role, perfectly in keeping with the character."
Kenneth Nkosi, the best known of the gang, is no stranger to local audiences and has appeared in a number of top television series. Die Aap is a simpleton, totally dependent on Tsotsi and the security of the gang and is to an extent the comic character. "Kenneth is another great actor and simply made the role of Die Aap his own. I think that often actors think you're sitting there in judgement of them, but actually you're hoping someone is going to come along and take that part. That is how we cast this film, people finally came and took the part," says Hood.
Since there is an enormous amount riding on a project, it was vital that the filmmakers were confident that the actors they cast were going to give everything they had to their roles. "If they really want to play these roles, they've got to their best from the beginning and that is what our young actors did. They earned their roles. They came out and just took them."
The look of the film developed organically over many months as the filmmakers considered various approaches and drew inspiration from photographic images and a number of different films. "We looked at films like 8 Mile and City of God, not only in terms of lighting style, but also in terms of shooting style," says Director of Photography, Lance Gewer. "We didn't copy any of these, but they did give us a reference point."
Tsotsi is a small character-driven film and although the 235 format opens up the story allowing the audience into Tsotsi's world, and to see that world through his eyes, the filmmakers have employed a very traditional camera style with very little hand-held camera and no imposed movement. The makes the film realistic and intimate without a sense of the camera encroaching on the action. Even the action scenes are not shot traditionally like action scenes, but rather as an observer would experience them. They have not been sensationalized, but portrayed realistically as the character would experience them. "We were very conscious that this is a Fugard story and that it had to be full of the subtleties that are the hallmark of Fugard's writing which is really about little people in different places and what they're experiencing. This film is about those moments," says Gewer. Read more, continued
WINNING THE OSCAR AND FUNDING
READ MORE ABOUT ATHOL FUGARD AND GAVIN HOOD
CO-PRODUCER PAUL RALEIGH TALKS ABOUT TSOTSI
WRITER-DIRECTOR GAVIN HOOD TALKS ABOUT TSOTSI
PRESLEY CHWENEYAGAE TALKS ABOUT PLAYING TSOTSI