What’s real? It’s true post-modern question, and your answer tells you a great deal about who you are and where you are, if you let it. Apply to Tsotsi, for instance, the South African winner of the 2006 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It tells the story of the title character, a young Johannesburg gang leader, accustomed the casual brutality whose sense of self gradually unravels as he kills a man, hits a colleague, humiliates a crippled beggar and hijacks a car all in the space of one night. The deal-breaker for him is his discovery of a baby in the back seat of the car he had hijacked. He’s shot the baby’s mother in the stomach and driven off. What’s he to do? He tries to take the baby under his care, appropriating the help of a nearby widowed mother of another young baby. Whether you consider what happens next to be real or plausible, is the heart of your reaction to the film.
We may feel his journey to redemption is an obvious one, but that does the power of this a disservice. If this was an American or British film we’d scoff at it; in South Africa, this is a story people need to read, hear and believe. For me and my tradition, gangsters are an interesting fictional construct based on a reality I am only dimly aware of. Violence is far more daily occurrence for a South African – as a country, as a people need to believe that the Tsotsis of their country can do this. Is this believable? My South African friends say yes – the commonplace nature of gang life making it ironically easier for a reformed man to blend into ‘safer’ society more easily.
This is a stark and simple film, with little that’s flashy or innovative. There is none of City Of God‘s kinetic energy, for example. In place, is beautiful photography capturing the beauty, light and shade of the city; simple and direct performances and a refreshingly measured story-telling, which brilliantly allows the the life of the characters to shine through. This, to an outsider to the country (one who lives in London’s ‘Little Jo’burg’) feels and smells like real life.
It’s not easy viewing; neither is it’s beauty of the pretty sort – it’s more honest than that. Instead it has something deeper and more profound, laced as it is with hope’s different shades.