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Gavin Hood: "These issues are timeless"
By Sean Axmaker
March 1, 2006 - 3:43 AM PST

"It's a wonderful, exciting, dynamic thing that's happening with these cultures mixing together."

South African filmmaker Gavin Hood speaks with an excitement in his voice and a rush in his delivery, as if he's trying to catch up with his ideas while constantly going back to rephrase them, trying to capture the right expression of an elusive concept. In his own words, "I keep going round on these things because I'm always worried if I'm getting this right. I know what I'm trying to achieve here, but sometimes when you try to articulate it too intellectually, it goes pffft."

That excitement is obviously a part of the passion of the director, who was chosen as one of "Ten Directors to Watch" by Variety at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, on the strength of his debut film, A Reasonable Man, and riding high with the success of Tsotsi, which had been winning praise since winning awards at the Edinburgh and Toronto Film Festivals. But there was something else, too. He arrived in Seattle on a press tour to promote Tsotsi on Friday, February 3, three days after the Academy Awards nominations were announced and Tsotsi had been named one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.

Though I came in at the end of his interview day, his energy level was high and he dove into every topic in detail, even taking a detour to give me a thumbnail guide of the diversity of South African culture.

Congratulations on your nomination.

I just heard that too. It hasn't sunk in. But that's okay. It feels a little awkward, but anyway, it's good.

What could be awkward about being nominated for an Academy Award?

You know there's this phrase of being beside one's self with joy? It only just hit me what that might mean, which is you're really not in yourself. You feel like it's happening to someone else and you're standing beside yourself looking back. No, it really hasn't sunk in. Really? We got nominated? [laughs] I think the other feeling is, of course, I'm overjoyed. I'm in a slight state of disbelief but I'm also in a strange phase of feeling that a certain pressure that I didn't really realize I was carrying, that pressure started to be released when we won the Audience Award at Edinburgh and then at Toronto. That was, "Oh, wow, this film has a chance of getting out into the world." And the nomination for the Academy Award is another one of those moments where you feel, "Okay, a lot of people have invested in this film, both emotionally and financially, from investors to distributors to actors to the whole cast and crew to the local industry that backed us..." There's a whole lot of happy people.

A film like this, if you don't get any awards and you don't have a name, you can lose everything because there's no hook to even get it to a television set. If there's a bad movie but it's got a name in it, it's got something to sell it. But the movie has stars, and the stars are the awards, because we don't have big names. But I do hasten to say that I think my lead actor is a star actor because I think this film wouldn't be getting any of these awards without this extraordinary emotional range that Presley Chweneyagae displays as an actor in the film. And indeed all the actors. I think, for me, they delivered at a level that is why we're here.

Why choose to direct in... what is the language they speak in the film?

Tsotsi-Taal. Tsotsi is the movie; it means thug or young gangster, and "taal" is the Dutch word for language. So it's really just gangster language, or gang slang. South Africa has eleven official languages and all eleven official languages are officially in this movie. As a Best Foreign Language Movie nominee, all our official languages are in the movie because the kids speak a combination of all of them. In the shantytowns, the people have come from many different parts of the country in search of a better life and these languages mix up. And there is indeed a dictionary of Tsotsi-Taal now. So that was quite fun.

Do I speak Tsotsi-Taal? No. I understand probably 40 per cent. I speak some Zulu, Afrikaans and obviously English, which is my own language. And those languages are obviously mixed up in Tsotsi-Taal, but I don't speak any Tswana or Sotho or Venda. And people think, "Well, are these different dialects?" And they're not. I think it's important to know that Sotho is as different from Zulu as Russian is from English, and they're really different roots. Xhosa [pronounced with click in the opening consonant] and Zulu have the same root. They're called Nguni languages. But Sotho has a completely different root.

So there really are these different languages and a lot of people don't see Africa in that way, I find. They see it, if you want to be simplistic, in black and white terms, as opposed to what it really is. If you talk about Europe, you talk about French and German and Italian people and they have their cultures and traditions and languages and so do we in Africa. It's a big, huge continent and there are Zulus and Xhosa and Sothos and Vendas.

There are six million Zulus. People say, "Oh, there's a tribe," and they think there are ten thousand people as opposed to a nation of six million with its own king and its own parliamentary people from Zululand - and Xhosa, which is where Nelson Mandela comes from; I think there are probably 5 million people. So once you understand that, then that mixing of everybody makes more sense, and it's a wonderful, exciting, dynamic thing that's happening with these cultures mixing together.

Not knowing much about South African culture, it seems from my perspective to be a risk filming in Tsotsi-Taal. Are there other films released in South Africa in that language?

I don't know that there's been another film released in Tsotsi-Taal. Oliver Schmitz made Mapantsula in the 80s. I know that it used different languages, but it's been a long time since I've seen it, so I have to be careful. And of course, Darrell Roodt's film last year, Yesterday, was done in Zulu, but it's pure Zulu because it's set in Zululand, in a rural area where the language is pure.

You see, maybe this is the good thing about these movies. Some people kind of forget that the film is subtitled, which is the best compliment for the movie. Because hopefully you do, because there is not a lot of dialogue. And hopefully, I don't know if you felt this - maybe I'm clutching desperately at this hope - but did you feel the subtitles got in your way or not?

I see so many subtitled movies that I'm the wrong person to ask. But I find that if you really connect with a film, you just absorb what the characters are saying and the language becomes secondary.

Good. Well, that was the idea in Tsotsi and I think it works that way for most people. I knew it was going to be subtitled, so I wrote the script in such a way that you wouldn't have speeches where you would be tripping over yourself to keep up with the subtitles, and indeed the lead character, I think, says no more than two words in the first 20 minutes of the movie. So a lot of the story is conveyed visually and just in the emotional beats and the interactions that happen, and that's what I think is wonderful about film. You get to work between lines, you get to work with stuff that's underneath the lines, stuff that's not said, stuff that hangs, because you can get in close.

There is also a chorus around Tsotsi that defines him in those opening scenes. There are the shouts from the streets of "Hey, little gangster!"

That's a nice way of putting it, a chorus of people around him defining him. No one else has said that. Hold on to that. [laughs]

Even his own gang members all have their own version of him, which they express in the way they talk to him, and he just stands there, holding court, and nods when he likes what someone has said.

That's exactly it. It's as if his power lies in his enigmatic quality and he defends himself by not speaking, because he's actually terrified of cracking open. So you develop this mask of anger. He's obviously a highly intelligent individual, but uneducated, which is, I think, what draws him to Boston, because he actually is so much smarter than the rest of the gang that he's surrounded himself with. Aap, the big guy, is clearly not smart, and Butcher is a psychopath without much interest in anything philosophical at all, and somewhere inside Tsotsi is a need that he doesn't really understand.

Into this world at some point comes this drunk, depressed ex-student that he then takes home. You find this out only later, of course, but he says to Boston at one point: "Who picked you up off the street when you were laying in your own vomit? This woman or me?" When he's trying to apologize for beating the crap out of him. And I think there is something in that. Why did he pick this guy up? A lot of people ask, "Why is this guy in the gang?" Well, my reason is because Tsotsi has this need, even before he gets the baby, there's this need to say: "I'm freakin' out, I don't know what happened to my mom..."

He should be in therapy but he ain't in therapy and there's not much chance of ever being in therapy, so you grab a hold of a potential therapist but you're too scared to talk to them when they start asking you questions, so you punch them. And then you find a baby that at least won't ask you questions, but will look at you. And isn't afraid to look at you. And you go, "I need some human interaction." You don't think this literally, but you try to work him backwards psychologically. Which is how I worked with the actors.

Much of the film, most of it, takes place at night, but there are day scenes and that's when he keeps the gang away. It's like he lets himself out in the day, and at night he turns back into this vicious, unfeeling gang leader. There's a dichotomy between the day version of Tsotsi and the night version, and when he takes the baby, he can no longer keep those two sides isolated.

Yeah, I think that you're looking for when you can let the daylight in. He's living in a very dark world, so the daylight... It's why he stalks Miriam [the young single mother] by day. He could just as easily have followed her at night, but in filmic terms, he's about to let the light in. And of course you have those mobiles that are light [Miriam has created mobiles with glass and mirrors].

By night he's a hunter. It's almost as if he's a nocturnal animal and he's afraid of the daylight, because daylight, in a metaphorical way, represents exposure, being exposed and being seen more clearly, because there's more light. He doesn't want to be in the light. That's why, when she says, "There's color and light falling on you, can't you see?" [from the mobiles], he goes "Fuck, I don't want to have color and light on me," so the metaphor's absolutely right. I mean, I don't want to overly play it, but you've hit on it, and again, nobody else has. [turns to publicist, the lovely and talented Miss Ginger Chan] Have they?

Ginger Chan [in perfect straight man mode]: No.

next >>>

"It's a wonderful, exciting, dynamic thing that's happening with these cultures mixing together."
"I never knew that Tsotsi would happen."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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