Splotlight/ Gavin Hood

Also a win for the industry

The Buzz

March 24, 2006|By MOIRA MACDONALD | MOIRA MACDONALD,SEATTLE TIMES

Less than 24 hours after winning an Oscar for best foreign language film, Gavin Hood is on the phone from Los Angeles. Asked how he's doing, he chuckles, in a voice raspy from a long night of celebration. "I'd lie if I said it wasn't good," he says.

Hood's film, Tsotsi (pronounced "SOT-see") was the first from South Africa to win an Academy Award - and a signal of hope to its small but burgeoning local film industry, and to the many people who worked to get Tsotsi made. But as Hood raced to the podium on March 5, he was confronted with a roadblock as formidable as anything he faced while making the movie: a ticking clock.

"It's just behind the first block of seats, in the center of the theater," he said. "This huge, flat-screen TV that has a clock. Not a little clock, a red background with white letters, giant-size letters. When I got there, there was 40 seconds on this ... huge clock that glares at you like a major general. And it was counting down."

Hood had a speech in his pocket, just in case, but didn't want to "waste five seconds" by reaching for it. So he spoke off the cuff, including a few phrases in Zulu: "God bless Africa," the first line from the South African national anthem, and "People are people because of other people," part of what he described as a humanist philosophy in Africa. And he acknowledged the two young stars of his film, Presley Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto.

"I feel a little overwhelmed by it all," he said, "our continent's first Oscar for a film." He noted other South African winners: cinematographer Dion Beebe, who won this year for Memoirs of a Geisha; actress Charlize Theron, a winner two years ago for Monster; screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who won in 2003 for The Pianist.

Tsotsi is based on legendary South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel, published in 1980. It is the story of an angry young gang member in a Johannesburg shantytown ("tsotsi" means thug or gangster in South African street language), who steals a car without realizing there is a baby in it and what he does then. Tsotsi also won the prestigious People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film festival last fall.

Hood has spent his career working in the South African film industry, which he described as two industries. One serves large international productions; films such as Lord of War, Racing Stripes and Ask the Dust, among others, were all at least partially shot in South Africa. The government, Hood says, offers incentives to foreign film production, and the country has "very first-world rental houses, post-production, lighting, camera rentals. Our film crews are very good, because they're used to working with all kinds of people from all kinds of countries."

Growing up rapidly alongside this, he said, is the local film industry, "maybe better called the local storytelling industry." Tsotsi, he notes, is not the first South African film to receive an Academy Award nomination; Darrell Roodt's drama Yesterday was a nominee in 2005. The local industry made "about a dozen" films last year.

Having such a small industry, he said, gives a filmmaker additional responsibility: You feel that if you don't make a good film, you're setting everyone back.

"When you've got an industry that's desperate to begin telling its stories from within, if you make a bad film, your industry is a little upset with you. We're not that big, there's not much room for error. That's why it's so exciting that people like the film outside of South Africa."

Hood said the Oscar gives his film "such a huge boost. [Oscar] night was just a great feeling, for not just me, but for a great many people who stood by this film. I feel a strange mixture of elation and relief, that folks who've had faith in the film are justified in having that faith. It's been a nice ride for everyone."

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