Anyone who watched the Academy Awards ceremony this past Sunday will probably remember one of the more spirited acceptance speeches from a guy named Gavin Hood, who had just won the Foreign Language Oscar for his South African drama Tsotsi. Since the movie has only been playing in New York and Los Angeles for the last few weeks, not many people have seen the movie except for critics and the Academy, who have loved this poignant tale of a young thug from Johannesburg, played by newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, whose life and attitude changes after finding a baby in the backseat of a car he stole.
It’s not the first film from director Gavin Hood, but it’s his most powerful and stirring thanks to the performance by Presley and a cast made up mostly of local non-actors, which gives his film a realistic feel not unlike Fernando Meirelles’ breakout City of God. It’s also made up mostly of black actors from the different class systems within South Africa, and yet Hood himself is surprisingly white. A few weeks before the movie’s American release, ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with this lively filmmaker about the film, unbeknownst to anyone that it would be an Oscar winner a month later, and he was extremely outspoken about the situation of his country and how he wanted to use his film to elicit change.
CS: How did you first find out about Athol Fugard’s novel? Did you know about it beforehand or just learn about it when approached to adapt it? Gavin Hood: I knew about the novel before. I read it in the early ’90s and I loved. I was like a nobody filmmaker that had not made anything, trying to get the rights to a book that nobody was going to give me. It was under option almost continuously from the time it was published, so I gave up. Then, I finally did make a film called “An Unreasonable Man” and it was seen by our producer on this film in Cannes in 1999. He gave me his card–you collect about 25 of these thingsand straight enough, about five years later, I got one of those calls that seldom happens, where somebody phones you. In those days, it didn’t happen. Suddenly, people are sending me scripts for the first time in my life, but in those days, it didn’t happen often. I got a call saying, “I’ve got a book that I love. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but we’d like to do it as a film. It’s under option to an L.A. based company. We’re going to partner up and I thought of you as someone who might be right to adapt it.” Then, he told me the book and asked if I knew it. The point is that it was the only novel that Fugard ever wrote. I grew up going to see Fugard’s plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, where I grew up, and the genius of Fugard is extraordinary. His characters are always so profoundly human, and his work is always focused on character, and the socio and political and economic environment floats up around them for you to observe, but you’re locked into the story, because he’s creating these brilliant characters that are deeply human, usually flawed, but pretty much have universal flaws in some way. So this was like a dream, but it was also kind of intimidating because Fugard was pretty famous and I wasn’t.
CS: How closely did you stick to the book? Hood: I would like to say that thematically, in terms of the ideas of redemption, personal responsibility and forgiveness, which are the central three themes, that’s exactly the same. The character of Tsotsi and his arc emotionally is exactly the same. The baby and his relationship with Miriam and his gang members is exactly the same, but of course, the book was set in the 1950’s and the film is set in the present day. The way that Tsotsi becomes an orphan in the book is different to the way he becomes an orphan in the movie, but it’s the misunderstanding of a parental rage, and a complete lack of understanding of what’s driving the social political environment that leads to a kid who has been abandoned and then has to raise himself. Once you have this kid who is raising himself, it becomes this universal story about this young man who doesn’t look inward very much, trying to defend himself against a hostile world with a mask of anger and something cracks it open. Now, he’s a classic timeless mythological tale about self-observance and the examined life that’s been done since the ancient Greeks.
CS: Presley was an amazing find. Is it true that he originally auditioned to play the smaller role of Tsotsi’s fellow gangster Butcher? Hood: Yes, and he was brilliant! I thought I had Butcher and I thought he was a nasty little piece of work. We’re done here! And then he turned to me and said, “Do you mind if I try a scene I prepared for Tsotsi?” and I was like “Okay, I just got Butcher, a vicious little bastard. Are you going to take him away from me now?” And this total vulnerability suddenly revealed itself, and he gave me a problem. Actually, he gave me a fat solution he gave me THE solution, the person we’d been searching for.
CS: Do you think that Athol based his story on anything that really happened? Hood: I’ve never asked him that and it’s a good question. I suppose I’ve never asked him that because Well, I can only really answer from my own point of view.
CS: And what is that? Hood: I’m a white middle class guy, so what’s my interest in the story? It’s a multiplicity of things. I’ve been mugged and my mother’s been carjacked, and there are different ways we all are trying to come to grips with what it means to deal with crime and your feelings towards someone who’s been violent to you. Part of what the challenge of Tsotsi was that it was an examination for all of us who have been victims of a crime. I’m trying to understand the kid that my mother said was “just a child” when he was waving a gun in her face and the kids who mugged me in the alley, and maybe it’s a choice between being extremely angry or trying to imagine that you’re life might have been very different. They rolled a different roll of the dice, and what if my life had been there? I’m also fascinated by these themes of redemption, because I feel extremely fortunate as a White South African, and somewhat spoiled. There isn’t even a word that describes the feeling of what we were brought back from the brink of by Mandela and DeClerk and Desmond Tutu when South Africa moved onto a new path. What does it mean, “forgiveness,” and what does it require? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very much about examining those issues, and it seems that South Africans understand that forgiveness is something that is possible, but only with a sense of genuine remorse. Maybe it is an exercise in trying to come to grips with something that if you don’t, it just churns around inside you.
CS: Presuming that most Americans automatically associate South Africa with Apartheid, why was it important for us to learn this story at this particular time? Hood: I suppose in some ways, we’re tired of being a one-issue country. That could have come out wrong, but it’s not as if “Tsotsi” isn’t political, because the politics of the day is HIV/AIDS and poverty. Those are the two political issues of the day, and they’re very much present in the movie. The genius of Fugard is and always was his focus on the person, and the politics always floated up around it, because people live in an environment. Some of the films by other people were more about the situation and less about the people, but those films often don’t last in the way that Fugard’s plays have lasted. When you realize that the impact of a system on an individual, it has much more impact on you than having someone grandstanding you with stock characters. What’s hard is to change racism or change poverty or to change crime, and to do so, you need to see the personal and empathize.
CS: That said, how has the country changed post-Apartheid? Hood: The difference is this: in the ’50s, the Apartheid government’s segregationalist policies were beginning to be more and more stringently enforced and they were increasingly enforced right through until the ’80s when we were getting the detention without trial era. Athol’s feelings when he wrote it in the early ’60s was that things becoming increasingly hopeless, like this state is degenerating into a police state. And it did! Now, with the overthrow of Apartheid, with a new democracy and with a Constitution that I want to proudly say is one of the best in the world. We don’t have issues with gay rights. Seriously, we took great inspiration from the American constitution, and then we went “Here are the holes.” The South African Constitution is quite remarkable in terms of being an extraordinary founding document, which is also great about the American constitution is that a country is founded on dignified ideas that then have to be lived up to and the challenge is not that you don’t have a great founding document is that you still have problems. But before, we just had a rotten core, but we have a healthy core, but we still have problems. We have AIDS, we have poverty issues, we have crime issues, but at least we’re starting from a place we’re not trying to fight the core. Now we can fight the real issues.
CS: Do you get the sense that the people of South Africa know about the poverty and violence in the townships, and either don’t know what to do about it or don’t care? Hood: Both, because there’s a 40% unemployment rate and there’s a lot of poverty. I didn’t want in the movie to judge the middle class couple, other than to say that none of us can feel comfortable in South Africa behind our gates without talking to the other, even if we don’t like them. This notion of good and evil is not helpful. How are we going to engage the poverty? Well, you just have to do a little bit. You don’t necessarily have to be Mother Theresa, but you can’t completely cut yourself off. Compassion is a useful tool.
CS: And do you feel that your film succeeds in bringing the two parties together? Hood: We’re not going to solve poverty with our film. That’s not the purpose, but I think what we’re encouraged by when people see the movie, is that I like to think that the film makes people want to talk to each other. You don’t have to be completely wealthy to feel acknowledged. Some people can be really rich and extremely lonely and lots of people in the townships are extremely poor. They got their music. What we don’t want is to feel pushed-aside; people just want to feel understood. And then you can start solving the economic problems. The movie has made people talk, which is really nice, because then you just release some of that hostility from both sides.
Tsotsi is now playing in select cities and is likely to expand this weekend.