Best Foreign Language Film, 2005
Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae
Tsotsi is a special film, one with long silences which express what words never could, one in which moments of extraordinary brutality stand side-by-side with moments of extreme gentleness. It is the story of a bad man who does a bad thing but becomes a better person in the process. In its strange way, it’s uplifting, though it isn’t at all sentimental. It’s an unflinching tale of poverty, crime and violence interrupted by a moment of grace and a subsequent act of redemption.
“Tsotsi” means thug and it’s an appropriate name for the film’s protagonist (Presley Chweneyagae). Tsotsi lives amongst the shacks in a Soweto slum, just outside of Johannesburg, and leads a small gang consisting of Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Boston (Mothusi Magano). We watch them as they go into the city, target a man on a crowded train, and proceed to rob and kill him without anyone else even noticing. This act makes Boston sick and leads to an angry confrontation between him and Tsotsi. With the same coldness and detachment that marks all his actions, Tsotsi nearly beats Boston to death and sets off into the night alone. He finds himself in a neighbourhood where all the houses are surrounded by security gates, gates which prove counterproductive when they cease to work the way that they’re meant to, as happens when Pumla Dube (Nambitha Mpumlwana) pulls up to her house. With his dead-eyes, Tsotsi watches Pumla attempt to open the gate with her remote and then get out of her car to use the intercom to implore her husband to open the gate for her. While her back is turned, Tsotsi gets into her car and when she tries to stop him, he shoots her, leaving her screaming in the middle of the street as he drives away. He doesn’t get very far before realizing that she was so desperate to get back to the car because of the baby in the back.
Tsotsi takes the baby back to his shack, caring for it in his own haphazard way. He can make due in certain ways, such as substituting newspaper for diapers, but not in others. When the baby is hungry, he follows Miriam (Terry Pheto), a woman with a baby of her own, back to her house and forces her to breastfeed at gunpoint. When he returns to her a second time, she asks him to leave the baby with her, promising to take care of him and let Tsotsi visit whenever he wants. A change has come over Tsotsi in the days he has spent caring for the baby and he wants to get out of the life of petty crime and violence, though he’s still willing to use crime and violence as a means to get what he wants and gets his gang together to commit a robbery so that he can use the money to get out of the slum.
The success of the film rests of Chweneyagae’s ability to express what lies behind Tsotsi’s cold, blank stare. Tsotsi is a character of few words and one who lets his hair-trigger temper do most of the talking. Brutality comes easily to him, but there’s a vulnerability which lies underneath that he hasn’t been able to shed. We come to understand how he became so hardened and we see a longing within him to be different. When Miriam tells him that she knows where the baby came from and that he has to give him back, his reluctance stems not just from his attachment to the baby but his desire to be around goodness, particularly the maternal goodness of which he was deprived as a child. “If I gave him back, could I still come here?” he asks. He knows that the answer is no and he understand why without Miriam actually having to say it, and despite her fear of him, she seems to understand why he would ask.
The film makes an effort to explain why Tsotsi is the way that he is, but it doesn’t try to excuse him from his bad acts. He has experienced a great deal of pain, but he has also inflicted a great deal of pain and he must be held responsible for that. This isn’t a fairytale or a story of a person undergoing a miraculous change; it’s the story of an isolated man who comes to realize that he is connected to the people around him, that his actions have consequences for them as well as for himself.