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Oscar-Nominee 'Tsotsi' Takes Trip to Soweto

(Soundbite of movie "Tsotsi")

Unidentified Man #1: (In film clip) (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (In film clip) Oh, man, shake the dice! Oh, the man, oh, oh, shake.


This is the sound of Soweto, in the new South-African movie Tsotsi, opening tomorrow. Gamblers throw dice, a young mother carries a baby on her back, men in suits hurry to catch a commuter train, and a teenage tough leads his gang down a dusty road.

(Soundbite of whistle, laughter, crowd, and music)

MONTAGNE: Tsotsi is slang for gangster, and the nickname of the movie's anti-hero. The movie is based on the 1950's novel by playwright Athol Fugard. With this update to 2006, virtually all the characters are black, including those who've moved up to mansions and Mercedes, and they speak not in English, but a township patois. Director Gavin Hood and star Presley Chweneyagae came into our Washington studios. Chweneyagae said the language is called Tsotsi-Taal.

Mr. PRESLEY CHWENEYAGAE (Actor): It's a mixture of all eleven official languages that we have in South Africa. We have a—it's a mixture of Xhosa(ph), Zulu, Afrikaans, English—that's why when you're watching the movie, you can pick up some English words and some Dutch words. It's also the strictly (unintelligible) that we use with the music, too—quieter stuff, because it's music that's brought from the township.

MONTAGNE: The music, which you call Kwaito...

Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Yeah, Kwaito.

MONTAGNE: would you describe it?

Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, it's almost like hip-hop, as compared to the music that you have here in America. It emerged, I think, early 90's, early 90's, 1994, just after the apartheid era.

Mr. GAVIN HOOD (Director): And the word Kwaito, the name Kwaito, K-W-A-I-T-O, actually is derived from an Afrikaans word, kwaai, which means angry, but it's also used to mean edgy or cool. So, I could say, you know, Renee, I know we're not in the same studio cause you're in L.A. and I'm here, and I'm sure you look kwaai. You look kinda cool. So, kwaito is kwaito music, you know. It's kind of angry, but edgy music.

(Soundbite of kwaito music, lyrics in a foreign language)

MONTAGNE: The movie begins with a rather shocking murder by these young hoodlums. They're on a train. They're gonna rob the guy. You think they're gonna threaten him, and then an ice pick goes to his heart.

Mr. HOOD: Yes, I think the one thing that I didn't want to do, and I hope we don't do in the film, is in any way glamorize violence. But we wanted to create a character that we initially really don't like as an audience, because the real challenge of this film, and the challenge that was set for us by the novelist Athol Fugard, is to explore the themes of forgiveness and redemption, and to what extent can we forgive when someone has done something pretty terrible. And so, it seemed that if you just made him a pick-pocket or something, it wasn't extreme enough to really challenge the audience in how to think about ideas of forgiveness.

So, the violence is sudden, you're shocked, and then it's the aftermath that the characters have to deal with, which I think, you know, fairly true to life. Violence is often one gunshot, and you got, did that just happen? And then there's these massive consequences that spin out from it. That's what we trying to do. You need to be alienated from Tsotsi, initially, in order for us to really explore what it's like to begin to understand him.

MONTAGNE: The turn comes when Tsotsi hi-jacks a car and finds himself out on the road towards the township, looking back, and there's a baby in the back seat. And you'd think, well, he might throw the baby out, but he doesn't.

Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, yeah, I think he doesn't because he sees something that's very different as compared to him, in terms of he sees this purity in this baby. And again, he kinda, like, looks at it as a chance for him to show affection and love for somebody of which he can, because he cannot take care of the baby, but they gain a certain bond, and he starts looking around, trying to find a mother for this baby. And, I think, later in the story, he realizes that if, like, this could have been himself, in a way, because if he was born in a rich family, he could have been this boy, so this kid deserves a better chance than he did.

MONTAGNE: There is a shot in the movie that is a truly astonishing visual moment, where you see a couple of kids stretched out inside a big cement pipe...

Mr. HOOD: In the pipes, yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...out in a field, and at first, one would think, oh, it's kids playing...

Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm, yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...really, in these pipes. And then the camera pulls back, and what do you see?

Mr. HOOD: Well, you see that there are a number of children living in the pipes, and it's raining, and that's where they've taken shelter, and the reality is that we do have significant numbers of orphans, given what's happened with the AIDS epidemic, and there are some kids—some, quite a large number of kids—who are struggling to make it, and forming these groups and, kind of, surrogate families of kids, and having to take care of one another in rather extreme conditions.

But I want to hasten to say that there's been sort of a shock to us coming to America, is to feel that there seems to be a tremendous need to make these easy categorizations, to see South Africa either in terms of black and white, or extreme wealth and extreme poverty. And, in some ways we, almost feel guilty that maybe the movie sort of implies that, because the middleclass couple are wealthy. They're not super wealthy, but they're wealthy. And the kid from the shantytown is a kid from a shantytown. South Africans know that this works for this story, and you wouldn't say that Boyz-n-the Hood is the American experience. You would say that it is part of the American experience, and an important part.

MONTAGNE: The novel by Athol Fugard was set in the 1950's, and you've updated it to the present day.

Mr. HOOD: Yes.


Mr. HOOD: The funny, glib reason is to make a film set in the 1950's, you usually need four times the budget, so you go, well, how can we tell this story? And then you say, well, hold on, what's really appealing about the story? Is it the time period in which it's set, or is it the universal themes of redemption and forgiveness?

There's a timeless, mythic element to this story about a young person hiding behind a mask of anger, not living beyond the moment, not looking inward at all, who, through a series of events meets various, if you want to be sort of classical about it, mentor figures along the way that inadvertently compel him to a greater degree of self-examination, and at a certain point, he emerges with self-awareness.

Now, that doesn't mean that life is good, or that everything's sorted out, or that he is forgiven, but that character has emerged, in some sense, a wiser person. And I'm being almost cheesy about this, but that is the classic hero's journey, and that journey is contained within this extraordinary environment that is not often seen on screen: the toughest shantytown on the outskirts of Soweto.

(Soundbite of kwaito music, lyrics in a foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Director Gavin Hood, and lead actor Presley Chweneyagae. Tsotsi is up for best foreign film at this year's Academy awards. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.