Bloody S.African Oscar contender proves hit at home

A tale of blood, bullets and poverty, Oscar contender Tsotsi rings true in its home market of South Africa -- which is why it has proved such a hit.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2006 20:53 IST

A tale of blood, bullets and poverty, Oscar contender Tsotsi rings true in its home market of South Africa -- which is why it has proved such a hit.

Tsotsi is the story of a 19-year-old gangster from South Africa's most famous township, Soweto, who steals a car and shoots its owner, only to discover a baby in the back seat.

The film takes the gangster on a journey of personal redemption but not without a series of shootings, car-jackings and murder -- a grim reality for many poor South Africans and a constant source of fear for the well-heeled.

Not only has the pacey drama won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, but it has scored as one of South Africa's most successful home-grown films with a broad appeal to both black and white, rich and poor.

"We have never had a South African film that has crossed over so completely to different audiences," said Helen Kuun, marketing manager for local films at Ster-Kinekor Distribution. "We are getting the township audiences and we are getting the arthouse audiences."

Tsotsi has grossed almost 3 million rand ($490,800) after four weeks in cinemas here and drawn audiences of 40,000 people, from white professionals in the smart suburbs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, to real-life gangsters from black townships.

Excluding the populist films made by local comedian Leon Schuster, Tsotsi looks set to be South Africa's most successful film in a decade, more than doubling takings from Yesterday, which was nominated for an Oscar last year, and beating Hollywood films about Africa, such as Hotel Rwanda.

It is the violence of Tsotsi -- township slang for "gangster" -- which rings true in post-apartheid South Africa, one of the most-crime-ridden places on earth. But audiences are also attracted to the hope embodied by the 'New South Africa'.

"My parents have been car-jacked. I have been mugged. We all know what it is like," said director Gavin Hood. "But do you write a story about the way it is, or the way it should, or could, or needs to be?"

Tsotsi's harsh realities struck home last week, when the director of photography was car-jacked a day before he was due to leave for Los Angeles for Sunday night's Oscar awards ceremony, according to local media reports.

But Busi Dlamini, who grew up in Soweto and now lives in the wealthier northern suburbs of Johannesburg, applauded Tsotsi for its realistic but human portrayal of township life.

And she said that unlike so many worthy South African films that dissect the horrors and legacy of white rule, Tsotsi avoids dwelling on racial politics to focus on crime and HIV.

"It did not use race as a scapegoat. Race is not an element at all in the movie which means everyone can be comfortable watching it," she said. "It's about life in South Africa and where we go from now."

First Published: Mar 03, 2006 20:53 IST