Saturday, September 17, 2005

TIFF 2005: "TSOTSI" (Review)

(Contemporary World Cinema) UK/South Africa, 94 minutes
Written by: Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi

This was 2005’s People’s Choice Award winner, which is pretty much the top prize for a festival without a jury. While it’s a well-made and simple tale, I can’t see how it managed to come out on top. Well-received at the screening but not exactly subject to wild applause, “Tsotsi” is really a middle-of-the-road story…perhaps that’s why it beat out some of the more challenging fare presented at this year’s fest.

The title character (“Tsotsi” means “thug” in the street language of South Africa’s townships) has been on his own since childhood, scraping out his survival on the mean streets with his gang. As portrayed by Presley Chweneyagae, Tsotsi is a young man whose life is spiraling out of control, rife with violence and despair. In frustration he heads off alone one night into the suburbs and carjacks a woman, shooting her and taking off with her car, even though he can’t drive. When he finally gives up on the driving and roots through the vehicle, he finds a baby in its car seat in the back. While his first instinct is to abandon the baby with the car, he inexplicably returns and takes the baby with him back to the township. There he finds that caring for the tot is much more than he can handle, and finds new mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) to help him out – at gunpoint. Slowly the innocent child’s presence in his life changes Tsotsi almost by osmosis as he creeps toward finally doing the right thing.

There’s nothing really wrong with “Tsotsi.” It’s a very straightforward and simple film, well-acted and shot by cinematographer Lance Gewer. It is sweet and uplifting, heart-warming and emotional. It wasn’t my personal favourite film at this year’s festival, but it obviously hit home for many people, and a People’s Choice win in Toronto has launched many careers. Be prepared to hear more from Gavin Hood in the future.