I love interviewing- hate transcribing. But people like Gavin Hood make even that worthwhile. The director of this years Academy Award winner for Foriegn Language Film sat down with me about a week before his win for a twenty minute interview that had me wishing we could talk for hours. Gregarious, generous and humble he's nonetheless passionate about his work and the land he feels he truly belongs to- South Africa.
Even without having seen all the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film I was rooting for Tsotsi. Taking a scenario that could easily be the stuff of low melodrama Tstotsi introduces us to desperation, hope and redemption in a way far too palpably real to be mistaken for mere entertainment. Tsotsi is a 16 year old self styled gang leader in the slums of South Africa. Seen as a smallfry by everyone but his own ragtag bunch of thugs Tstotsi falls into a violent confrontation that sends him briefly on the run. During an impulsive carjacking he shoots the cars owner only to discover a baby in the backseat. Unable to give the child up for reasons even he does not understand Tstotsi embarks on a journey that changes everyone around him.
The film virtually reeks of director Gavin Hood’s deep personal commitment to the healing of his South African homeland. A short conversation revealed Hood to not only be an impassioned filmmaker but an articulate observer of the processes of reconciliation.
DC: It seems like goodness is a harder thing to reflect in stories, particularly films, than badness. Your career seems built on that in a way?
GH: Please write that. It’s a beautiful statement and an awesome compliment. I was attracted to the story of Tsotsi because of it’s themes of redemption, forgiveness and personal responsibility. It was a story that wouldn’t be the same without all three. Redemption involves the taking of responsibility and forgiveness as well and there’s also the idea of needing to then forgive oneself. After all it’s not just about “I forgive you” but “Am I entitled to be forgiven?”
For instance in the film we have Butcher who pretty clearly presents a picture of evil at it’s most psychotic extreme but he’s really the only character we define in that way. So often the paradigm of good vs. evil in movies (or politics) isn’t really helping us towards the sorts of resolutions we hope for. None of us are truly entirely good and I suspect very, very few are entirely evil. We fall between. Most of us need forgiveness and need to forgive as well.
DC: You obviously speak as someone who has been immersed in the process of reconciliation but your understanding of it seems rooted in spirituality vs. mere philosophy or intellectual judgement. Is that a fair observation?
GH: Oh absolutely. But we do need to be careful not to strictly compartmentalize these things. They affect one another.
DC: I’ve got a Borders gift card in my pocket. That means I extend it and get something in return but only just that much. It’s a business relationship. Reconciliation is different, it touches everything.
GH: We meet Tsotsi in a state, that mirrors much of Africa. His poverty is all consuming. It’s not just economic, or geographic, or even political. There is a profound psychological poverty that results from lack of nurture, there is an educational poverty that results from lack of education. Outwardly it’s easy to dismiss him because of the path he walks but he is really a very crippled person. Like all of us he needs some healing.
DC: There is a wonderful image at the end of the film that I won’t reveal because it might spoil it for the first time viewers. But it’s so symbolic of Tsotsi handing over his own crippledness in favor of no longer walking alone and it struck me that his willingness to walk with others into such an uncertain future was a way of finally becoming an adult. It was his weakness that finally made him strong.
GH: It’s very much a coming of age story. A young man, angry at a messed up world, doesn’t know who he is, hasn’t done the work he needs to do to find out, meets this series of unlikely mentors. One just happens to be a three month old baby. You know not all Obi Wan Kenobi’s know they are Obi Wan Kenobi’s.
DC: Actually most babies look more like Yoda.
GH: Better, better. The point is that none of these people really realize they are providing that for Tsotsi. Miriam is unaware and the man in the wheelchair is completely unaware. The family of the baby, Tsotsi’s fellow gang members, none of them realize this rle that they assume in his life. .
DC: And yet through that unconcious process there is a grace at work.
GH: Even if it is twisted at times. I mean one has to wonder, maybe even Butcher was just one day of nurture away from becoming someone very different. That is reconciliation. It isn’t the losers being tried by the winners, it is the reclamation of my countries soul. This is why we’ve set up the process the way we have in South Africa.
Any South African who has committed a violation of human rights, whether they be black or white, is called to come and talk to the people they’ve hurt or at the very least their surviving families. And if after hearing you there is a sense that the apology is total, true, real, heartfelt, then we can move on. Eye for an eye simply won’t work in our context.
DC: But isn’t that a way of saying what they did was alright? Where are the consequences.
GH: You can’t start with consequences but then again you shouldn’t really end with them either. You know the end of the film frightened me for precisely that reason. I knew exactly what we were getting at and there was a big danger the actors would play it either too tough or too melodramatic. When the audience senses that they stop being involved.
What I think Presley (who played Tsotsi) and Jerry Mofokeng (who plays the baby's father) did in that end scene was to transcend all that. They let that moment build, they let a real sense of remorse come forward. How was Tsotsi punished? That would give away the ending, but the important thing is at that moment I think the audience is truly invited to forgive him. And they understand that the true tragedy is that Tstotsi has walked down a road that up until that moment has made sense to him. It’s a road anyone can wind up on.
DC: Of course here in America the idea of a public official simply saying “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I stole, I lied, I cheated” isn’t taken very seriously. Instead we talk about politics, and media manipulation and spin and bottom lines in terms of votes, or economics. Morality is ultimately looked at as something that is dispensible unless it’s being used to control the masses? Do you have a case for morality? Why should we see value in Tsotsi’s journey toward redemption?
GH: Well obviously Tsotsi can’t be seen as a model for “AFRICA’ in the larger sense because Africa is this huge continent. Even in South Africa alone there are eleven languages. But there is a sense in which we must identify ourselves as Africans- we must be one. This isn’t a device of manipulation or even mere survival. It isn’t about being nationalist in abigoted way but of first seeing yourself and then seeing your community and understanding that they must nurture each other.
Tsotsi is just trying to be a person in an environment that does everything to discourage the best of what a person should be. In that way he is no different than anyone else, black, or white, rich or poor. I’m white, I know that. I make up less than ten percent of the African population. I have family in England and I’ve been educated in and currently live in the states but I don’t know where I really belong. But one thing I do know- I am a human being and as I have realized that I believe I should be in Africa I have had to seek out the place for me to be, the way for me to be. I have had to stop asking what makes me different, be aware of it yes. But ultimately to dwell on what makes me the same.
DC: But doesn’t have someone have to have a reason to believe why they can matter, to hope? What’s Tsotsi’s reason?
GH: You mean why doesn’t he just kill the baby or leave it to starve? I thought about that for a long time. I think it’s fair to say that we don’t necessarily know why we do things at the moment we are doing them. If he had enough time to think about it perhaps he’d discover that place in himself that received love before his mother died, that knew what it was like to be orphaned. Maybe he’d discover his own curiosity about being theresomeone else.
When you struggle with ssues of identity you discover that you are like everyone else. I don’t know if there is a God. I want their to be. I’m no athiest but my challenge to is to live now. Just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I can’t love and don’t ned love. We have all these conflicts over other people’s certainties. I’ve got a new idea. How about being able to say I don’t know but that the one thing I’m certain of is that I can’t exist alone. The African tradition of Ubuntu says, “I am a person because you are a person. Otherwise I don’t know who I am. I need someone to share with.
Ultimately Tsotsi comes to a moment, for him it is the moment. I believe everyone has that moment. If we can just respond with arms open it changes everyone.