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South African Drama 'Tsotsi' Wins Best Foreign Language Film Oscar
Published March 6, 2006

The story of a violent young criminal living dangerously in and around the townships of Johannesburg has been lauded for its apt depiction of life for millions today.

Hollywood seems to have embraced the South African reality of crime, grime and poverty after Tsotsi won the best foreign-language film Oscar on Sunday.

The story of a violent young criminal living dangerously in and around the townships of Johannesburg has been lauded for its apt depiction of life for millions today.

Gavin Hood's adaptation of a novel by acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard has an immediacy that has impressed many, including township dwellers in South Africa who have a huge appetite for United States action movies.

Hood struck a nationalist theme as he accepted the award, shouting: "Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika" and "amandla".

But he also said he was accepting the award on behalf of all the directors of foreign films.

"We may have foreign language films, but our stories are the same as yours stories. They are about the human heart and emotions."

The Oscar is one of several international awards that Tsotsi has won.

"We are finding our voice," said Paul Raleigh, one of the co-producers.

"There is something about this film that appeals to our humanity."

Shot in the sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto, the film tells the story of a 19-year-old "tsotsi," or thug, who is confronted with the depravity of his life while caring for a baby that he found in the backseat of a car he hijacked after shooting the child's mother.

Set to kwaito music, the pumping sound of South Africa's urban youth, Tsotsi opens with the ruthless teenager leading his posse to a train station to prey on passengers.

The victim turns out to be an older man who is mercilessly stabbed on a packed commuter train as a small envelope of cash is pulled from the inner pocket of his suit jacket.

"We didn't want to glamourise crime. We didn't want to sensationalise it. But we needed to show that the character of Tsotsi was dangerous, that he is capable of killing," said Raleigh.

"But because of his age, there is a vulnerability, and when you start chipping away at his armour, you see him break down."

The film revolves around Tsotsi's wrenching decision to return the baby to his parents, doing "the right thing" perhaps for the first time in his young, hard life.

"It's a story about hope, it's a story about forgiveness, and it also deals with the issues that we are facing as South Africans: Aids, poverty and crime," said Presley Chweneyagae, the 21-year-old actor who plays Tsotsi.

"But at the same time, it could take place anywhere in the world," said Chweneyagae, who made his film debut in Tsotsi after briefly working in community theatre in his home township near Mafikeng in northern South Africa.

The world of film has also stepped in to reshape the reality for a young man named Delano Daniels, a real-life township teenager on whose experiences Totsi could have been based.

By the age of 18 Daniels had three carjackings, two cash-in-transit heists and a handful of burglaries under his belt.

He was still at school in the gang-infested township of Westbury west of Johannesburg when he began running drugs for gangsters in the neighbourhood. Like many South African boys his age, he aspired to be just like them.

"I joined a car theft syndicate in 2000 and became the youngest member," he says.

"We were robbing cash vans and never getting caught. I was doing drugs, smoking buttons [Mandrax]," he says. Not getting caught, he says, made him feel invincible.

Most of the time, he recorded his activities using a home video camera. Gauging from some of his raw footage, his fellow criminals did not seem to mind and can be seen playing to the camera.

"I was just doing it for fun. I was always interested in film," he says.

What emerged was two very frantic and unusual home-made films pulsating with rap music tracks, a haphazard array of video clips and haunting stills.