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Last Updated: Monday, 6 March 2006, 06:27 GMT
Tsotsi takes foreign film Oscar
By Manoush Zomorodi
BBC News

Presley Chweneyagae as Tstosi
Actor Presley Chweneyagae plays the troubled Tsotsi
Tsotsi, by South African director Gavin Hood has won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Tsotsi is a young gangster who has fended for himself in a shantytown just outside of Johannesburg since he was a child.

He and his pack of feral friends have little regard for human life. They rob and murder to survive.

One night Tsotsi steals a wealthy black woman's car. When he drives away he realises that an infant is in the back seat.

Tsotsi tries to care for the child by carrying him around in a shopping bag and coercing his neighbour, a young mother, to nurse him.

Tsotsi is based on the novel by renowned South African writer Athol Fugard. His book is set in the South Africa of the 1950s, a nation then rife with apartheid.

I grew up in a township so I knew guys like Tsotsi
Presley Chweneyagae, actor

But director Gavin Hood sets his film version in the present and focuses on the modern day struggles of poverty and Aids. Hood says his film is more about class than race.

"The issues in the film are very much about the gap between the haves and have-nots, if you want to politicise it in some way.

"Really we wanted to make a film about a young guy who's angry and struggling with his own identity who becomes a young man.

"In a sense it's a coming of age story, a universal story, but it just happens to be set in a quite an extreme place."

Hood admits he was inspired by films like City of God, a 2004 Oscar-nominee which is set in the Brazilian slums.

He decided to shoot Tsotsi in the street dialect of Tsotsi-taal with all local actors rather than in English with a big name star.

South Africans hail local film's Oscar victory

Getting cast as Tsotsi - which means "thief" in South Africa - was young actor Presley Chweneyagae's big break.

"I grew up in a township so I knew guys like Tsotsi... we had lots and lots of screenings in the townships, for street kids, and I remember one day one of the guys said "oh that's me", and that was a relief.

"For South African actors to look and me and go 'oh wow, this is his first film and he can go to the Oscars', it gets them going!

"I'm still not over it... I'm going to the Oscars! It's every actor's dream," Cheweneyagae says.

Although this is not South Africa's first time at the Oscars, director Hood says being nominated for an Academy Award is a thrill because South Africa's film-making community is hardly vast.

"We have a small industry at home in terms of the local product that we make - there's quite a big industry because a lot of the international production shoots there but in terms of our own local storytelling we're just beginning to make more than one film every couple of years."

Director Gavin Hood describes Tsotsi as a 'coming of age' story

Hood believes South Africa submitted Tsotsi to the Oscars because the film has a message of forgiveness, without being sugary sweet.

Although South Africa continues to struggle with disease and inequality, Hood says South Africans are proud to have transitioned from apartheid to democracy without bloodshed, which he feels is reflected in his film.

"I believe we have one central issue that we are proud of - and that is that we almost had a bloody revolution," he said.

"Mandela and De Klerk and Tutu with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought us back.

"Men like that really taught us about redemption and personal responsibility and forgiveness. And I think that these themes of redemption, forgiveness, and personal responsibility are themes that South Africans proudly understand.

"That's at the core of Tsotsi and that was why it was put forward as South Africa's entry and we're really proud of that."

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