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It's art, but not his life

In the street tough 'Tsotsi,' Presley Chweneyagae plays out the fate he avoided.

January 08, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Johannesburg, South Africa — TEN years ago, Agnes Keagile flipped through her local newspaper, fretting about her son growing up in a rural village with nothing to do but play street soccer. She feared he would go the way of many boys in the area and end up a gangster: a tsotsi, in the local slang.

Then she spotted an advertisement offering a way to keep him off the streets and soak up all his spare time. She told him to forget his dreams of becoming a soccer star and packed him off to drama class.

Her son, Presley Chweneyagae, 21, did grow up to be a gangster, but not in the way she feared. He is acting the part in "Tsotsi," a new South African film shot in Johannesburg and Soweto township and South Africa's nomination in the foreign film category of the Academy Awards.

Recently screened at the American Film Institute international film festival, it tied for the Audience Award for best feature film. It's a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film and has won awards at international film festivals in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Toronto. It is set to open in the U.S. in February.

The film examines the poverty and disappointment in the post-apartheid era, with Chweneyagae portraying the title character, a desperate and violent gang leader in South Africa's modern-day shantytowns.

Chweneyagae's only training as an actor came in the classes his mother, a police inspector, found for him near their home outside the town of Mafikeng in northwestern South Africa. His first professional role was at 14 in a local play; in 2000, he moved to Johannesburg and played Hamlet at South Africa's State Theatre.

Keagile, 43, who named her son after Elvis Presley, has never missed one of his plays.

"I count myself very lucky," she said. "Most of the children his age are in jail. Others are loitering around in the streets doing nothing. Some murdered innocent people. Others do terrible things like raping, you know, child abuse." For all of those ills, she said, she blames unemployment.

So while Chweneyagae's friends were dropping out of school, Keagile saw to it that he did not. He spent his spare time either at drama class or watching movies, fascinated with actors such as Marlon Brando.

"My mom didn't want me to play soccer in the streets. She wanted to keep me off the streets because most of my friends were criminal," Chweneyagae said. "Most of them are in jail now, the ones I grew up with.

"I think it's a matter of choice, and if you grow up in poverty, it's not really an excuse for crime."

*

A family's fate in his hands

BASED on the apartheid-era novel by South African author Athol Fugard, "Tsotsi" explores the themes of choice, responsibility and redemption in a South African township. Described by Fugard as the best film ever made of his work, it is set in modern South Africa, where, terrified of crime, wealthy whites live behind high walls with electric fences, sophisticated alarm systems and 24-hour armed security guards.

Chweneyagae's Tsotsi embodies the object of all those fears. He hijacks a woman's BMW, but as he speeds off he realizes there is a baby in the back seat. He has to decide how to care for the infant (finally forcing a woman to nurse it at gunpoint) and ultimately has the power to decide the fates of the baby boy and his parents.

"Although it seems to be a ghetto movie, it very quickly becomes a much more intimate story, the story of this young teenage lost, crazy, out-of-control kid and a baby that he hides from his friends," said South African director and screenwriter Gavin Hood.

"He feels angry with the world for what he perceives as a bad roll of the dice for him, and the people who are rich, whose baby this is, seem to have rolled a six to his one. But he also suddenly finds himself with the power to really ruin their lives," Hood said.

The film is subtitled, with dialogue in Tsotsi-taal, literally gangster-language, often used by youth in South African townships. It's a colorful, evolving combination of slang and words cribbed from different South African languages.

"It's now a language, and there's a dictionary of this language," said Hood, "because all the kids who come to live in shantytowns are coming from not only the 11 official languages of South Africa, but a lot of kids and families are coming from countries to the north and are fleeing the troubles in Zimbabwe or the war in the Congo. And these kids are all mixing together and having to communicate through this language of the streets." The soundtrack is raw, energetic Kwaito music, South Africa's answer to hip-hop.

"The film is shot in wide-screen format because even though it's a small film, it's an epic story: a tale of the heart, of this one little kid's story, against the epic background of this huge city of Johannesburg," Hood said.

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