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South Africa: Abuzz about Oscars

Actor, Presley Chweneyagae.

South African actor, Presley Chweneyagae, plays Tsotsi, the lead character in the film. Photo: Blid Alsbirk/Miramax Films.

This Sunday, a South African film called Tsotsi will compete for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. It's the second year in a row that a South African movie has been nominated in the category.

We're 10 hours ahead of Hollywood, so when the awards are dished out during the wee hours of the morning here, only diehard film fans will be tuning in when the red carpet is rolled out. But South Africans are paying a lot more attention to the Oscars these days. For the last three years, South Africans have been nominated for Hollywood's top prize.

In 2004, South African-born Charlize Theron won the award for Best Actress for her performance in the film Monster about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The following year, Yesterday, a quiet and heartbreaking film about AIDS, was nominated for Best Foreign Film. The Zulu language movie didn't carry off the big prize, but it was picked-up by HBO and PBS.

This year's hopeful, Tsotsi, is set on the gritty street of Johannesburg, and tells the story of a small-time gang leader who ends up looking after a baby accidentally kidnapped during a carjacking.

The word "Tsotsi" is street slang for "thug" or "gangster," and the film is an uncompromising look at the harsh, often violent reality of life in South Africa's shantytowns and urban ghettos.

The word "Tsotsi" is street slang for "thug" or "gangster," and the film is an uncompromising look at the harsh, often violent reality of life in South Africa's shantytowns and urban ghettos. The action is carried along by a powerful hip-hop soundtrack, which features the music of the hugely popular Kwaito star, Zola, who also has a part in the film.

South African cinemas have struggled for years to attract black audiences. Some blame it on the legacy of apartheid, which segregated blacks into second-rate theaters in the poorest neighborhoods. But many see Tsotsi as a wonderfully accessible film and many young black South Africans have been pouring into cinemas to see it.

Outside a busy movie theater in Cape Town, Buntu Valesha was lining up to buy tickets. "I heard it's intense and a South African story. And there are South African actors," Valesha said with pride. "They didn't use actors from overseas. So it could be brilliant!"

South Africans are accustomed to seeing foreign actors play the roles of their most esteemed political heroes. Denzel Washington was the late Steve Biko in the film Cry Freedom. More recently, Hillary Swank played a South African lawyer involved with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a film called Red Dust. And in a few weeks, yet another American actor, Dennis Haysbert, who played the president in the hit American TV show 24, arrives in South Africa to play the role of the nation's most revered leader, Nelson Mandela. Many people here argue that South African actors who lived through apartheid deserve to play these roles.

young children take refuge from the rain inside large construction pipes.

In a scene from the film, homeless young orphans take shelter in Soweto. Photo: Blid Alsbirk/Miramax Films.

Joy Sapieka has worked as a publicist for American productions set in South Africa. "So far, the films that have been made haven't worked," she said. "They haven't worked because the actors coming in haven't really understood the experiences people have been through."

Sapieka is convinced that no amount of research, talent or good intentions can help an American actor to convey what it's like to endure a life under apartheid. "It's very, very difficult for them to interpret that," she said.

Director Gavin Hood, who attended film school at UCLA, faced considerable pressure to make Tsotsi into a Hollywood film. His investors asked him to cast international actors in English-speaking roles. He went to Los Angeles and held auditions. After three weeks, Hood returned to South Africa and decided to go against conventional wisdom. He cast local actors speaking in their own language.

That was clearly the right decision, according to Sapieka, who worked to promote the South African release of Tsotsi. "The films that are working, that people are sitting up and noticing, are local films made in local languages," she said. "Films that are not trying to either imitate Hollywood or trying to be like Hollywood. These Oscar-nominated films have proved that."

Aside from using local actors and local language, Tsotsi and last year's Oscar nominee Yesterday, have something else in common: white directors. Some say that also needs to change.

"It's a portrayal of urban life, township life, which may be perceived as quite exotic in many quarters. But in the end, that really plays on a pathology that is not the healthiest or the most empowering for where we are in this country at this time."

"I am interested in black filmmakers telling more of their own stories," said Dingi Ntuli, a black film producer working in South Africa. He says blacks still have a harder time than whites getting access to resources to make their films. "Our objective is to shift the playing field so everyone has access."

Ntuli is circumspect about the subject matter of Tsotsi and doesn't want to hop on what he calls the "Tsotsi bandwagon." He has problems with the film's themes. "It's a portrayal of urban life, township life, which may be perceived as quite exotic in many quarters," he said. "But in the end, that really plays on a pathology that is not the healthiest or the most empowering for where we are in this country at this time."

The debate over who should be telling South Africa's stories is likely to continue. But Hood, doesn't seem to care. He says there's nothing he can do about the color of his skin. His film should be judged on its merits. And he grows impatient when asked about those who criticize him for being white and making a "black film."

Gavin Hood.

Tsotsi's director, Gavin Hood, received a lot of pressure to cast international English-speaking actors for his film.

"I'm not trying to make a black film!" he said, with a touch of exasperation in his voice. "I'm trying to make a film that is honest from a universal, human, emotional point of view. And I don't really care if the people in it are Chinese or Greek or Spanish or South African."

Hood says he tries to approach life nonracially, inspired by the message of South Africa's former President, Nelson Mandela. "People being boxed in is precisely what we're trying to get away from," Hood explained. "Black people don't want to be boxed by the virtue of the color of their skin and, frankly, neither do I."

If trends continue, it may not be long before there is a black director behind a South African Oscar-nominated film. Young men and women are entering film schools here at a fast rate and more black directors are beginning to learn their craft. Many people here are excited about the future of South African films.

"There'll be at least one or two that you hear about next year and three or four that you'll hear about the following year," said Michael Murphy, an American film producer living in South Africa. "I think creatively, South Africa has gained a self-confidence and a self-assuredness that they've got stories that are just as valid as stories that come from anywhere else in the world."

Tsotsi is currently being screened in select theaters across the United States.

Amy Costello is a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World and has been reporting from around Africa for five years. Her story, "Sudan: The Quick and the Terrible," about ethnic cleansing in Darfur, was broadcast on FRONTLINE/World in January 2005, and in October 2005, she did a Rough Cut from South Africa about a child-powered water pump. Costello is Africa Correspondent for PRI's "The World" and is based in South Africa.

Editor's Note: On the topic of Oscar nominees, U.C. Berkeley Journalism School graduate Dan Krauss, who was the talented cameraman on our Rough Cut, "Namibia: This Land Is Ours" has also been nominated in this year's short film category. In his film "The Life of Kevin Carter," Krauss profiles the uneasy life of Kevin Carter, a young Pulitzer-prize-winning South African photojournalist who covered the black townships during the violent end of apartheid. Carter was part of a small adrenaline-fueled group of South African war photographers who called themselves "The Bang Bang Club."


It is intresting to see a White person (again) telling an African story as they see Africans as some semi-noble savages. But what do you expect when history, and current events are still the domain of the former and current slave masters.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
A white South African director and a virtually all black cast of outstanding actors.

linda ringgold - Lancaster, Ca
I just recently saw this movie and absolutely loved it, loved it. I greatly enjoyed Presley's acting range. I had never seen him before but I could not stop praising throughout the entire film. I'm a black american female and enjoy foreign films from time to time and am very pleased that local actors were used and local language. Authenticity is paramount. Keep up the good work.

Abongile Faxi - Grahamstown, South Africa
It really fills me up to see African movies being recognized worldwide. I myself always dreamed of being a movie star but haven't been one, and would probably never be one. So the dudes should keep it up!

Nonhlanhla Mnembe - Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal
I'm an actor and I even have a diploma for acting. My worry is that at the moment I don't have an agency; I have tried different agencies and no luck. Now it's just the matter of auditions. How can one help me through my problem?

jersey city, nj
Good movie, good acting.I love it. Great job .

Philip Ryan - Los Angeles, CA
It's so good to see South Africans finally being acknowledged all over the world. There are many bright starts out there. Not just Charlize, but guys like Stelio Savante, Corey Falkow, and of course Arnold Vosloo.