That enthusiastic fellow bounding onstage to accept the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film was director Gavin Hood, and he was no less wired and “fried” when we met earlier in Seattle to discuss Tsotsi (see review), made in a fast-changing, but still troubled, South Africa. First off, he was bursting with pride at his country’s burgeoning film industry.
“The commercials market is massive. The crews are really good; they’re used to working on big American productions” like Lord of War and Racing Stripes, he explains. “What we don’t have a lot of . . . is local screenplays and productions and homegrown stories. Tsotsi‘s just part of a collection of increasingly exciting films” without international stars or financing. “I’ll tell you who really inspired me is the Mexicans and Brazilians—Y Tu Mamá También and [its director] Alfonso Cuarón.”
As the film industry is growing, so too is Johannesburg as an African center of globalization, he notes. Around the prosperous city, you have the old apartheid-mandated black townships like Soweto. “The shantytowns have grown up on the edges of the townships. There’s a lot of big industry, but there’s still more people, and more people coming from all over the continent. It doesn’t help that Zimbabwe is in crisis.” Or Angola, or Nigeria, or the Congo, and so on.
As a result, Hood compares South Africa’s situation to the former U.S.S.R. or Brazil, where massive population movements have been unleashed.”[Johannesburg]is a magnet now that the iron fist is gone, and people can live and move where they want. Home can be where you want it to be . . . and that has intensified problems. It’s the haves and the have-nots. There is a very strong black middle class, and indeed a super-wealthy black class emerging. The crime has become very difficult. We have a 40 percent unemployment rate. There’s no doubt that if you’re poor and black in South Africa, you’re also more likely to be a victim of crime.”
How is this social reality different from source novelist Athol Fugard’s times? “He set his story in Sophiatown, which was then a pretty tough neighborhood. And the tsotsis of those days used to imitate American gangs . . . what they perceived from movies.” Then the context was the apartheid government versus the African National Congress, Hood continues, while black-on-black crime was mainly confined to the townships. Now criminal violence has dispersed, like the flow of people across the African continent—which introduces the final pressure Tsotsi addresses: “The thing that breaks my heart about South Africa is just when we’ve got a decent constitution and a democracy . . . we got hit with HIV-AIDS. And it just seems so unfair. We’ve got an AIDS infection rate of like 30–40 percent, depending on who you talk to. It hangs like a presence over the whole of society.”