Talking Pictures

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Yes, USA / UK 2004.

Posted by keith1942 on April 15, 2014


After the ‘diversion’ of The Man Who Cried Sally Potter returns to more familiar territory in terms of both production and content. The production companies include her regular support Adventure Pictures, other apparently independent producers and the UK Film Council. I had seen the film before, but second time round it seemed to me the best feature in the Potter retrospective at the Bradford International Film Festival.

Like Potter’s best films it is unconventional in a fairly distinctive way. The dialogue is delivered in iambic pentameters, sometimes rhyming sometimes not. Critical opinions were divided on this technique: however, I not only thought it worked well but that it bought an added dimension to characterisation and story.

Essentially the plot centres on an affair between ‘he’, a Lebanese doctor now working as a chef in London, ands ‘She’, a scientist of Irish American extraction. [Note the difference in upper and lower case!] The plot also involves She’s husband, an Ambassador played by Sam Neill. The couple share a god-daughter Grace (Stephanie Leonidas). And he has family in Beirut whilst She has a surviving aunt in Belfast (Sheila Hancock). Added into this is a cleaner (Shirley Henderson) who, in a typical Potter trope, addresses ironic comments direct to the camera. These comments both open and close the film. Commentary between the characters, at She’s home, in the kitchen where he works,  hint at wider political issues. These include Ant-Arab prejudice, anti-Irish prejudice, the explosive events in 2001, and the way that an amalgam of British culture and British based religion feed into values and attitudes.

As is common in Potter films one is aware of references to other films, other artworks and other cultures. Given the central plot device one instinctively thinks of William Shakespeare’s Othello. And indeed, some lines of dialogue reminded me strongly of that play. The resonances work because the cast deliver the verse with real brio. Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian are superb in this, as they are in the more physical scenes. There is one sequence, late in the film, set in an underground car park. One can imagine Shakespeare seizing such a setting with relish. This is an immensely powerful and moving sequence.

Potter is well served by her collaborators on the film – Alexei Rodionov on cinematography, Carlos Conti with Production Design, and Fred Frith working with Potter on the music. In fact, it was the visual and sound design that I remembered most vividly from the first screening.

The film also fits the Potter template with its resolution. One is waiting for a denouement that several times seems just around the next scene. But when it comes it works well, with a suitably ambiguous resolution.

Leslie Felperin gave the film a very positive review in Sight & Sound (August 2005). However, he also included the following comment: ‘Despite her occasional faults as a director (self-indulgence, humourless), feminist film-making icon Potter has always shown rare taste.’ The ‘self-indulgence’ is true to a degree – but what filmmaker elevated to the ranks of auteur is not? Certain one could apply the term to the winner of the most recent Sight & Sound poll. Alfred Hitchcock. The ‘humourlessness’ puzzled me more, I looked it up in a dictionary: not a lot of help. So I checked the Thesaurus: the alternatives on offer were ‘serious’ and ‘dull’. Potter’s films are full of wit an irony so I cannot imagine any experienced critics calling them dull. Serious, yes, but is that not a welcome alternative when so many ‘serious artists’ end up relying on mainstream finance? I do think that if critics watch too large a diet of mainstream films then it is likely to blunt their critical acumen.


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The Man Who Cried 2000.

Posted by keith1942 on April 12, 2014


This film scripted and directed by Sally Potter seems an unintentional and ironic revisiting to a sub-plot in her previous film The Tango Lesson. In that film we see the lead character [played by Potter] negotiating with Hollywood types over a film project – she finally abandons the unequal struggle.

Unfortunately she has not followed the lesson of that film. The majority of the films in the Bradford International Film Festival’s retrospective have been fine, even brilliant. This one rather lets the side down. Whilst it is a |UK/French co-production the presence of a number of Hollywood stars firmly places the film.

I had a bad feeling about this film early on. An onscreen title read ‘Russia 1927’. Now the bourgeoisie have finished celebrating the failure of the socialist revolution in the Soviet Union it seems that they want to pretend that it never happened. As far as I could make out from the limited plot and dialogue information the setting is actually in the borderlands between the young Soviet State and the new Polish State.

The main narrative follows a young Jewish girl who, after her Cantor father emigrates to the USA, is forced to flee a pogrom. She ends up in London. In the late 1930s she moves to Paris and works as a dancer. When the Nazis arrive and start rounding up Jews she flees again. This time it is to the USA where she finally finds her lost father, the man who cries at the end of the film.

The plot and characters are fairly clichéd, with occasional fanciful touches. The young Jewess Suzie is played by Christina Ricci who seemed to me out of her depth with this character. John Turturro plays an Italian opera singer Dante and Johnny Depp plays a gypsy César: both perform creditably with fairly clichéd characters. All three are outshone by Cate Blanchett as dancer and ‘gold-digger’ Lola. Harry Dean Stanton as the father Felix was probably grateful for only having two brief onscreen appearances.

The film does have high production values. And Potter displays her skills in the use of mise en scène and music. In fact the film works best as an operatic telling. Potter is also well served by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny and Production Designer Carlo Conti. Generically it falls into a cycle of films that dramatise the European holocaust. But this is an area where I think a director like Stephen Spielberg is better equipped to present in mainstream conventions. Moreover, the film lacks the edge of a feminist critique that is usually found in Potters’ work.

I hope Sally Potter, after this experience, will remain in independent productions. She is definitely skilled at narrative features, but it is in the less conventional and even unconventional telling that I feel she is most effective. Some directors, like Steve McQueen or Jane Campion, move fairly easily between the independent and mainstream worlds of the film industry. Other artists with a very distinctive approach suffer from such a movement. One thinks of filmmakers, for example Euzhan Palcy, who made striking independent films and then found their distintive voices muzzled in the mainstream.


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The Tango Lesson

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2014

Tango 2

The second feature from Sally Potter featured in the Bradford International Film Festival’s retrospective of her work. There are twelve tango lessons in the film, though the lessons are not merely about the Argentinean dance. In addition the main character Sally, played by Potter herself, is working on a screenplay which is a sort of murder mystery involving three models, a designer and his film crew. Whilst the film is predominately shot in black and white these sequences are shot in brighter colour. This also applies to a set of sequences where Potter is pitching the screenplay to a group of unidentified Hollywood producers. She eventually gives up the attempt when faced with the contradiction between their commercial values and her own auteuristic preoccupations,

The focus of the film is the lessons with the Argentinean tango dancer, Pablo Veron (also playing himself). These take place in Paris and in Buenos Ares. The tango is, of course, an extremely seductive dance. And the typical milieu, a slightly formal setting, usually a bar, adds to this sense. Potter trained as a dancer and eh accompanies her skilled a professional partner with real panache. The lessons are part of a bargain – she will learn the tango, he will enjoy an on-screen performance. There is also another professional performance in the film when Potter accompanies him in a professional, theatrical display.

Apparently some film critics were less than kind about Potter’s performance on the films initial release. I thought that she performs her role as a tyro dancer extremely well. In the theatrical display, whilst she performs the intricate steps skilfully, there is also a sense of stiffness and less than complete confidence. The lack of confidence reflects the changing relationship between Sally and Pablo. Theirs is an ambiguous relationship she enjoys the tango dancing but it is presented as demanding that the woman ‘do nothing’. This power relationship is subverted when Sally as film director takes the helm.

The tango m music and dances are great. The black and white cinematography, especially, is finely shot by Robby Müller. And the changing locales provide a varied and intriguing series of settings. Like Potter’s best films the exploration of gender relations and power struggles is acute and mainly subversive.

The final resolution seems rather stretched out. I have this sense with several of Potter’s film. There is the sense that she is exploring the possibilities while finishing the construction of the film. In the end the one that she settles on seems the less radical of the possibilities.

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‘Wider still and wider’.

Posted by keith1942 on April 10, 2014


After the delights and surprises of the Bradford International Film Festival we have the Widescreen Weekend. Three and half days of big screen entertainment now firmly established as a film buff’s must. The Festival offers all the major widescreen formats, 35mm anamorphic, 70mm, 2K and 4K digital theatrical projection and Cinerama.

This years programme is as varied as usual. There is a tribute to the VistaVision format with White Christmas (1954). Sadly this is a digital version. Apparently the Museum does have an old VistaVision projector but it needs major technical attention. And I am not sure how many of the originals VistaVision prints now survive. We have just faint memories and its occasional use in technical effects.

The 70mm presentations include The Big Blue (1988), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and West Side Story (1961) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). The Museum is able to project on both flat and curved screens. The latter a rare treat. The main 35mm print is For a few Dollars More (1965) in a Scope print. There is also The Way We Were (1973, a personal favourite) in the next best thing to celluloid print, 4K digital.

There are also interesting presentations and talks. There is a session by restorers on working digitally on 70mm prints. A panel will be Remembering Widescreen, with illustrations. And Christopher Frayling is coming along to talk about Sergio Leone.

The brochure [online at the Bradford Film Festival’s pages] is impressive. The programmer Duncan McGregor, provides both the original technical details of the films and those of the print or digital version being presented. This makes a pleasant contrast to many of the multiplexes where on cannot even tell if one is going to see – film, theatrical digital and video. Duncan heads an experienced team of projectionists so we will get not only memorable films but also the films presented with skill and attention.


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Triennial Review for the British Film Institute

Posted by keith1942 on April 6, 2014

An earlier filmed review

An earlier filmed review

The online notice below appeared on the bfi and DCMS WebPages on March 28th. However, I only found out when Mark Newell kindly emailed me with the information. This does seem rather typical of the bfi and government consultations. There has not exactly been a flurry of information or publicity around this. I have not found anything regarding this in Sight & Sound, which one would suppose was an obvious place to catch the attention of people interested in the work of the bfi. Now there remain only just on three weeks to send in comments. However, it does provide an opportunity to feed in comments, suggestions and complaints about this important film institution.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a triennial review of the BFI.
It is a standard requirement by the Cabinet Office for all Government departments to review their agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least once every three years to ensure that they are still needed and are complying with principles of good corporate governance.

The aim of this review of the BFI is two-fold:
• Stage one: to examine whether there is a continuing public need for all functions performed by the BFI and if so, to determine if the BFI should deliver them or if there is an alternative delivery model.
• Stage two: to look at the control and governance of the BFI to make sure we are complying with recognised governance principles and delivering our functions effectively and efficiently.

If you would like to take part in this review you can do so by responding to an online questionnaire. The questionnaire will remain online for four weeks, starting on Friday 28 March and finishing on Monday 28 April. The review team expects to report in the summer.
For more information about Triennial Reviews and the process, visit the Government services website.

Ways to respond
Respond online or Email to:
Write to: Department for Culture, Media & Sport
100 Parliament Street

Mark, with great promptness, has already sent in comments. He kindly agreed to let this Blog reproduce his letter. He has clearly raised some important and central issues about the bfi. Hopefully our readers will be stimulated to follow his example. I have looked through the questionaire on the DCMS site – I think letters would serve better! Anyway,  I suspect readers  will have other key issues to add. Given the paucity of information it would be a good idea to pass this information on to other interested parties. I should also note that the next meeting of the Board of Governors is fixed for April 29th: presumably to discuss the review among other matters. As Roy posted they have added more metropolitan members of the establishment to their number. However, according to the November and January minutes [posted on the bfi WebPages] they have not given any more thought to the reduction in Member Governors.

 020 8 390 19384/4/14

The Rt. Hon. Maria Miller, M.P.
Secretary of State                
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
100 Parliament Street
London SW1A 2BQ
Dear Maria Miller,
The British Film Institute
The BFI should now review as promised its new rules for the conduct of Member Governor Elections. These were introduced about three years ago and have resulted in three failed polls and finally, in 2013, in the temporary (or permanent?) removal of one of the two Member Governor posts. At the present time the Board has given no indication as to what will happen when the one remaining “regional” Member Governor’s term expires this September. Members are justifiably concerned that their views are neither heard nor properly represented.
Film enthusiasts subscribe to the BFI Southbank’s monthly guide in the main to see films that cannot be viewed elsewhere. One of the more popular themes is Archive film. In 2013 this programme strand was drastically cut to enable work to be carried out on digitisation. It should be restored as soon as possible.
Useful as the BFI Player and the Mediatheque are, they’re no substitute for seeing films on the big screen with an audience.
Yours sincerely,
Mark Newell


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Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2014

One of the films screened as part of the Bradford International Film Festival retrospective of the work of  Sally Potter. This is a multi-industry production, taking in the UK, Russia, France and the Netherlands. But the main protagonist in the film, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) travels farther and longer than all of these combined. This is an adaptation of the novel by Virginia Woolf, which I have not read. Over four hundred years Orlando and the film travel from Elizabethan England I to Elizabethan England II. At a key moment in this journey Orlando changes gender, from a comely youth to a comely maiden: whilst apparently not ageing at all.

The film offers a series of beautiful sequences – the court of Elizabeth 1st: a C17th Russian delegation visiting the England: an ambassadorial embassy to a North African court: the C18th satirical scene: World War I very briefly and then the then contemporary UK. The mise en scène, especially the settings, decor and costumes, are finely presented. The transitions are often elliptical and ambiguous, but the connecting thread is the very fine performance by Tilda Swinton.

The narrative has both irony and an arch quality. There are recurring looks and asides from Orlando directly to the camera and the audience. When I first saw the film on its original release it struck me as a beautifully realised satire [amongst other points] on the UK Heritage film. Re-visiting it I also felt an ironic take on the films of Peter Greenaway.

There is clearly a strong feminist standpoint in the film. However, it other ways it is not noticeably political. For example, the 1740’s sequence completely ignores the great Puritan revolution. I take this to be a reflection of Woolf’s novel. And there is a similar absence in the presentation of Russia, Africa and World War I.

This was the film that first established Potter as a distinctive film voice. It remains one of her best works. She does seem to have a definite affinity for adaptation. I do feel that there are authors other than Woolf who can provide a more substantial narrative and thematic core.

The film was screened on HD-Cam, and looked pretty good. It is sad though that there is not a 35mm print of this film available.

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Early short films by Sally Potter

Posted by keith1942 on April 3, 2014



This was the opening event in a full retrospective of this filmmaker at the Bradford International Film Festival. The films varied in length between 2 minutes and 32 minutes and were filmed on various formats, including 8mm and 16mm. The Festival included a quote by Potter in a 1998 interview:

“Sally outlined the questions she implicitly considered in these early films: ‘what is film space and film time? What is the frame?” However watching the films I was also struck by a focus on bodies and movement – a preoccupation that explains why, though she says she always wanted to become a filmmaker, she also studied dance and ballet.

The programme consisted of five films. The three shortest are clearly early experiments in the medium of film. The other two are more substantial explorations of narrative worlds. The London Story (1986, colour 15 minutes) seemed to me to be a nicely produced but essentially lightweight spy story. In fact, it was the only one of the film funded by a public body, the BFI. I rather thought that said something about film funding in them UK.

Thriller (1979, black and white, 32 minutes) was a much more substantial work and really impressive in its linking of themes and style. There are two major strands in the film: the first is a series of still photographs of a performance of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in Italy in the 1930s. This accompanied by a recording of an opera performance in London in the 1950s. The second strand combined a drama and dance rendering of the opera’s plot. The setting is some sort of attic room. The performers are in contemporary dress. And the lead performer, re-enacting Mimi, is a young Afro-Caribbean woman. In the course of this we hear Bernard Herrmann’s accompaniment to the shower sequence in Psycho (1960) several times on the soundtrack. Towards the end we also hear a commentative voice that asks questions about the drama.

One question poses what would be the effect if Musidora rather than Mimi was the protagonist in the drama? This pursued only briefly. The main question suggests that Mimi’s death could be murder – hence the use of Herrmann’s score. This raises a much larger question given the predilection of modern melodrama to present the woman as victim, and therefore as an object rather than a subject.

Like much of Potter’s work the film is full of what seem to be deliberate references to cinema and to other arts. She appears to have a taste for references to Surrealism. I discerned hints of Luis Buñuel, Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte. I found the film both enthralling and stimulating. It also seems to illuminate preoccupations that recur in Potter’s later work. There is certainly a recurring address of issues found in Feminist theory and practice. And there is a continuing interest in what is called intertexuality – the way that cinema, and other arts, intertwine their meanings and motifs.


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The Grand Budapest Hotel, USA / Germany 2013.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2014


This is the eighth film directed by Wes Anderson and it appears to have enjoyed the most lavish marketing campaign of any of his productions. I saw the trailer [about six times] at every cinema I visited over several weeks. This appears to have paid off. I have seen the film twice. Even at afternoon performances there were reasonable audiences. I saw it once at the Hyde Park Picture House and they had had over 200 in for the previous evening’s performance. I saw it a second time at the National Media Museum and they were also enjoying good audiences. On both occasions that I saw the film the audience appeared to have enjoyed the 100 minutes of entertainment. And people I spoke to afterwards were very positive about the film.

The film is An American Empirical Picture, Anderson’s own production company. It is partly funded by the Independent Indian Paintbrush, which has a long-term relationship with Anderson. And it is distributed by Fox Searchlight, which has had the rights to several of Anderson’s recent films.

This is a recognisable Anderson film. The main setting is in a created world, Mittel-Europe in the 1930s.  Appropriately the film’s production was based at the Babelsburg Studio. This created world is presented in a mainly naturalistic manner but it is no no way a realistic world. It is much closer to the Hollywood worlds of screwball comedy and the melodramas of a director like Ernest Lubitsch. The credits include a dedication to the writer Stefan Zweig. And the world in the film is as artificial as that in the adaptation by Max Ophuls of Letter from an Unknown Woman (USA 1948). But Anderson’s ironic picture is much more playful and less melodramatic that that of Ophuls.

Most reviews draw parallels with the films of Lubitsch. Whilst intriguingly a review by Edward Lawrenson (Reprinted in The Big Issue in the North) draws a parallel with the 1930s adventure films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially The Lady Vanishes (UK 1935). Anderson, like many of his contemporary filmmakers, loves to include film references and homage in his work. I was reminded at one point of the UK films, Crooks Anonymous (1962) and then of Where Eagles Dare (1969).

There are cameos by well-known actors like Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel. And the new faces, like Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, are equally good at the deadpan tendency in performance elicited by Anderson.

The film style, with the emphasis on artifice and the quirky, is instantly familiar. Much of this is engineered with traditional film effects, though there is also an amount of CGI, especially in the climatic sequence. The film has the longest set of digital effect credits that I have seen in a film by Anderson. One less successful innovation is the introduction of changing aspect ratios. The contemporary opening of the film is in 1.85:1. The following introduction to the fictional Author (the older version, Tom Wilkinson) of the fictional book is 1.85:1 letter-boxed within the larger frame. The flashback when the Author (the younger version, Jude Law) has the main story recounted by Mr Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) is in 2.39:1. Whilst the actual central story is presented in 1.37:1. Some reviews give 1.33:1, but this was the main ratio of the silent era. Perhaps that accounts for a couple of reviews that erroneously suggest that the main story takes place in the 1920s. There is a clear on screen title, ‘1932’. I did not think that the variable ratios were very effective. Both projectionists I spoke to had used the 1.85:1 screen. So for much of the time the matting on the full screen surrounded the actual framed image. Indeed in some sequences with a softer focus the divide between image and matte was unclear.

I also felt that whilst the film had more outright humour than in other Anderson films, that this was at the expense of substance. My favourite film by Wes Anderson is Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Whilst I enjoyed the ironic portrayals that make up much of that film I also developed a keen interest in the fate of the characters. At one point in The Grand Budapest Hotel the anonymous Author observes a patron in the lobby suffering a stroke. As he turns to the lift he remarks that ‘it did not concern me’. I had a rather similar sense by the film‘s resolution. However, the film is vastly entertaining, it has some impressive visual and aural sequences and the cast perform with great aplomb.


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20th International Bradford Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on March 6, 2014

BIFF logo

March 27th sees the welcome return in the 20th edition of this showcase for films from all over the world and from many different periods of |International Cinema. The launch on February 26th saw the Festival co-directors, Tom Vincent and Neil Young, present some of the highlights of the eleven days of screenings and a show reel of trailers for these. What can, I presume, be called their mission statement offered ‘We think we put the world before you’. The programme will include 127 films, of which 43 will be UK premieres.

Many of the latter will be in the Festival Official Selection, hosting films from 20 different countries. These include dramas, melodramas and documentaries. And among these are a number of promising new UK productions.

There will be a complete retrospective of the work of Sally Potter who will receive the Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship. The retrospective includes her early short films and all of her seven features. The only disappointment is that it seems that Orlando (1992) is only available in the HDCam format.

Then we have five ‘crime films’ directed by Japanese filmmaker Nomura Yoshitaro. A major director he worked at the Shochiku Studio from the 1950s to the 1970s. These films were all adapted from the stories of the writer Matsumoto Seichō,

The regular section of the Festival Uncharted States of America features a tribute to James Benning. His films have been a recurring feature in the programme over the years. They are distinctive studies of Americana, with a strong minimalist feel. The programme includes both his work on 16mm and using digital formats.

There is also the regular horror strand, Bradford after dark. The films seem to include comedy, the surreal and the genuine unsettling.

Biff also provides tributes to important contributions to British Cinema. So this year the Lifetime Achievement Award goes to the actor Brian Cox., The Festival is greening one of his television works – Nigel Kneale bizarre but forward looking The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC 1968) – and five of his features. The one disappointment is that this does not include Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), a film with a fine performance by Brian Cox which deals with a somewhat taboo subject, Britain’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy in occupied north of Eire. This last film would, of course, be extremely topical at this point in time.

There is also a selection of Short films and several silents. There are specialist talks and interviews and a range of supporting cinematic material. There is also a Filmmakers’ Weekend organised together with the Northern Film School at Leeds Metropolitan University. And a special bonus for traditional cinephiles – after the opening Thursday and Friday there is at least one 355mm screening every day. The Festival uses the Pictureville, Cubby Broccoli and Imax screens, and there are also screenings at Bradford Cathedral, Bradford University, the Impressions Gallery and [in nearby Leeds] the Hyde Park Picture House.

See for full details: there is also a complete Festival Brochure.

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Tsotsi South Africa / UK, 2005.

Posted by keith1942 on February 19, 2014

Filming Tsotsi in Soweto.

Filming Tsotsi in Soweto.

This 2005 joint South African/UK film production was a widespread success. It was the fourth-placed foreign language film at the UK Box Office in 2006 and it achieved the distinction of winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in the same year. The film uses English, Afrikaan, Zulu and Zhosa  [some of the last three combined in the township dialect of Tsotsi-Taal], partly translated into English subtitles. The award and accompanying critical praise set a seal on the developing film industry in the new South Africa.

The drama focuses on a young gangster or ‘street thug’ (the meaning of the film’s title) in a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The film fits into a long-­running cycle of ‘black township’ movies but is also an adaptation of a novel by one of the country’s major writers, Athol Fugard. The film stands as a successful entertainment as well as being a political statement on the contemporary post­-Apartheid society. However, I want to argue that its fuller meanings become clearer in the context both of the township film cycle and the original novel.

There have long been film dramas set in the black townships of South Africa, both from indigenous filmmakers and mainstream film companies abroad. Generally they have, to varying degrees, provided a critical look at the exploitation and oppression of the black majority under the Apartheid regime. The concentration and brutal treatment of the masses of people herded into the makeshift slums where they provided cheap and casual labour for the white dominated economy epitomised the dark face of  ‘separate development’.

The earliest film in the cycle dates from the first years of the Apartheid regime. Cry the Beloved Country (1951) was a British film adaptation of a novel by Alan Paton, starring the young Sidney Poitier. It followed the book in depicting the poverty and oppression endured in the black shantytowns. It also posited black and white reconciliation through the friendship of two grieving fathers. The theme of reconciliation was the reason the novel was re-filmed in 1995, as the first post-Apartheid South African feature. Interestingly, this later version seems to give more attention to the white protagonists than the earlier film.

Over the years a number of films offered stories based in these black slums. Nearly all dramatised the conflict through black and white relations. Thus one of the better-known films, Cry Freedom (1978), used actual people in the shape of white newspaper editor Donald Woods and black activists Steve Biko. The film typified the approach of mainstream films made outside of South Africa, with the dramatic moments of the film focused on the white characters and ending with their departure from the country and its oppression. The independent production Friends (1994), supported by Film Four, took the opposite line when the central female characters, black and white, met up in an African township at the film’s closure.

A recurring motif in the films has been the young person, usually a black male, drawn into crime and violence. In Cry the Beloved Country a young black man is hanged after murdering a white man in a robbery. Tsotsi makes this issue the centre of its drama with its young criminal protagonist the leader of a township gang. Early in the film we see them rob and murder a black worker on a train. Tsotsi appears a ruthless and dangerous street thug. Later he shoots a middle class black woman whilst stealing her car. At this point the narrative shifts into a drama of conversion and redemption. ‘His life will be changed for ever’, as the trailer puts it. Tsotsi finds the woman’s three-month old baby in the stolen car and is faced with the demands of caring for this apparent orphan.

The central section of the film concerns the efforts of Tsotsi to care for the child and the impact that this has upon him. He displays an increasing vulnerability, and flashbacks show the audience his early life, including family break-up and his effective orphaning. Clearly Tsotsi’s thuggish activities result from childhood deprivation, a familiar trope in gangster films. Tsotsi’s travails with the child are paralleled by scenes showing the efforts of the distraught parents, the mother wounded and in hospital, to get police action and the rescue of their child. The two strands converge at the climax when the police surround Tsotsi as he returns the child to its mother, now in a wheelchair. The father intervenes to prevent police violence, and as mother and child are reunited, Tsotsi is taken into custody.

Parents and child

The director, Gavin Hood, in his commentary on the DVD, suggested this rather open ending allows audiences to debate possible futures for Tsotsi. The film does lack the usual closure found in mainstream movies. However, Tsotsi is not only clearly redeemed at the film’s closure, but there is at least some hint of a better future for him. In his struggle to care for the child, Tsotsi has forced a young widow in the township, Miriam, to feed the child with her own milk. In their final scene together Tsotsi asks, “If I take him back can I still come here?” The young woman does not answer but offers a half-smile of ‘maybe’. This moment is one of those privileged in the trailer. It can, I think, be read by the audience as a hint of a future relationship. In fact, Tsotsi has shot one of his own gang in an abortive robbery. However, he shot the gang member, Butcher, in order to prevent the murder of the child’s father. One might assume this would be evidence in his favour and lead to a custodial sentence of not too severe length. The reformed criminal taking his punishment with the promise of a stable life and romance after imprisonment is a staple of crime films.

The director reinforces the aspect of redemption at the film’s end in the use of mise en scène. The night before the baby’s return we see Tsotsi and a gang member, Boston, in his shack. Tsotsi is asking Boston for forgiveness for a beating that he gave him. A stream of light through a window accentuates the religious style of the image. The point is reinforced when Tsotsi changes his clothes for the journey of return, and now appears in a clean white shirt and black slacks, presumably symbolising a new found innocence. He certainly appears far less threatening than when he is eyeballing township passers-by in his leatherjacket.


Gang members in a shebeeen.

So the film of Tsotsi offers a drama of salvation and reconciliation. It is extremely effective. Visually the film is very well produced with frequent images of the slums where Tsotsi and his gang reside. It provides powerful and emotional scenes, both in the form of Tsotsi’s memories of his childhood, and in the contemporary angst of the wounded black mother. In true Hollywood fashion Tsotsi occupies the centre of the film and is a dominant part in the narrative. His actions tend to drive forward events. And it is his emotional development that leads to the film’s resolution. It has a modern shooting style, with fast editing. There are approximately 1150 shots in the entire film, about a cut every five seconds and it makes good use of a limited colour palette and high and low key lighting, enhanced at some points by digital work. The soundtrack includes kwaito or township hip-hop music, though the lyrics are not translated.

In producing this effective and conventionalised drama the film has moved a long way from the source novel. Gavin Hood, who both scripted and directed the film, remarked in an interview (at the Göteborg Film Festival) that he went to Hollywood to learn the proper way to write scripts. The unstated point here is that this assumes the conventions of Hollywood writing are the proper form for film scripts. Certainly, with the exception of the use of native languages, the film is clearly within the conventions of Hollywood. In the DVD commentary that accompanies deleted scenes Hood explains that he cut one scene, part of the back-story of Boston, because he felt it gave it a more universal meaning. This is a staple of the Hollywood mainstream film. But in removing particular detail filmmakers often remove the sense of a very specific context in which the story is grounded. My feeling in viewing Tsotsi was whilst the key characters were carefully delineated, the township environment remained rather generalised. When we turn to Athol Fugard’s novel, we find a rather different drama with a very different form.

“Written in 1959-60, when he was drafting his first success, the play The Blood Knot, this novel is the one work that was bypassed as his life in the theatre unfolded. Stored in a suitcase of manuscripts, on loan to the National English Documentation Centre in Grahamstown, Tsotsi remained in manuscript form until recently. It is a powerful, turbulent book, dealing with another side of Johannesburg life from the one we know … life across the tracks in Sophiatown … Tsotsi is a record of a lost period in the South African urban happening.” (Stephen Gray, Johannesburg, 1980. Note Sophiatown was destroyed and cleared to make way for white housing in the late 1950s).

So the book describes an actual township, Sophiatown, now gone. Within this township Fugard presents the young thug, Tsotsi. Many of the plot events are common to book and film. The robbery and murder, the abduction of the baby, the break-up of the gang, and the nursing provided by the young widow Miriam, feature in both. One important difference is the ending.

In the book Tsotsi is never able to return the baby. He has been hiding it in some nearby ruined houses. These are the effect of compulsory slum clearances: one of the oppressive acts of the regime documented in the book. On the final morning Tsotsi hears the demolition teams and races to the ruin:

“He got there with seconds to spare. He had enough time to dive for the corner where the baby was hidden, before the first crack snaked along the wall and the topmost bricks came falling down, time enough even then to look, and then finally to remember. Then it was too late for anything; and the wall came down on top of him, flattening him into the dust.

They unearthed him minutes later. All agreed that his smile was beautiful, and strange for a Tsotsi, and that when he lay there on his back in the sun, before someone had fetched a blanket, they agreed that it was hard to believe what the back of his head looked like when you saw the smile.”

This is clearly a far more downbeat ending than that of the film. And adaptation softened the book in a number of ways. The sheer unpleasant and unsanitary nature of the township existence is missing from the film. Whilst it still shows incidents such as the use of newspaper for nappies, or ants crawling over the baby, the look is much cleaner than the sense given in the book.

But there is a far more important aspect, which is different. The bourgeois parents of the missing child are absent from the book in which Tsotsi attacks a woman in the night and is left holding a shoebox:

“The lid had slipped off in the sudden impulse of her generosity. Tsotsi had found himself looking at a face that was small and black and older than anything he had ever seen in his life: it was lined and wrinkled with an age beyond years. The sound that had stopped him, and saved the woman, was the cry of a baby.”

We never find out any more about this woman. It is not even certain that she is the mother of the abandoned child. And Tsotsi’s motivation in caring for the child is far more complex than in the film. The baby strikes unexpected resonances in Tsotsi:

“Something had happened that he had guarded against a long time. He had remembered. It was a strange memory. It was also ancient – going back further than he had even thought time itself went. The baby had brought it. That was also obvious and easy. The moment he had looked down, almost the exact moment of seeing it, he had remembered . . . He knew his curiosity as a froth of futile questions that came to his lips. He wanted the answers, he wanted the answers very bad, but he did not have them. That was when he decided to take the baby … Something urged him to kill the baby and leave it, warning him that he was playing a game he had never dared before. But Tsotsi was obsessed now, a longshot fool who had rolled the dice and had his first win, and then dared the lot because he wanted more. Tsotsi wanted to know everything.”

Unlike the film in which, as the trailer suggests, he encounters ‘the past he has forgotten’: in the book Tsotsi’s memories have been suppressed because of the traumas of his childhood. The baby enables him to recover his memories, his identity as David Mandla and his humanity together with a sense of other people’s humanity. So Tsotsi dies, not as a gangster, but as a human being. Hence the final smile.

The lack of any representation of the mother ties in with Tsotsi’s traumas that he has repressed. His mother was taken away in a police raid on a township. His returning father, away working like so many township Africans, gives way to anger at the trauma and beats the family dog. This bitch, pregnant, dies producing stillborn puppies. Here we have oedipal trauma piled on oedipal trauma, and the young David runs away to be adopted by a gang of child scavengers whose homes are in old pipes. The apparent repetition of the traumas with the young child that he finds provides a trigger for ‘recovered memories:

All this is lost in the film, as the mother and father of the baby become not only actual, but also are important plot factors in the story. We still get Tsotsi’s memories in the form of flashbacks. But there has been a less than subtle alteration. The film’s flashback has no police raid, but a sick mother (apparently from AIDS) and an angry father. Presumably the father’s violence to the dog (not pregnant) is occasioned by the mother’s sickness, but it does look rather like the stereotypical black male violence. He is swigging from a bottle as he beats the dog. This aspect is reinforced with the portrayal of the police team. At one point the white senior officer (who I take to be an Afrikaner) cautions restraint on his over-excited black subordinate Zuma.

The Afrikaan police officer.

The Afrikaan police officer.

The reduction in Fugard’s presentation and descriptions of white racist violence are considerable. The book stays determinedly in the black environment: the other ‘white man’s world’ is there only in the conversation or experiences of the black characters. The two white characters, a well-meaning white clergyman and his housekeeper, are based in the township. Both treat the black Africans like children. Fugard’s representation of the oppression and violence of apartheid is extended and mainly presented through the experience of characters that Tsotsi encounters. Much of this is reduced to a few lines of biography in the film. However, in the book the reader is given extended explanations about characters. In the centre of the book is the encounter between Tsotsi and Morris, the cripple. This runs to 30 pages in a book that only has 168 pages all told. In the film Morris, who lost his legs in a mining accident, has a wheelchair, but in the book he drags     himself along by his hands. Morris is important because he is part of Tsotsi’s increasing awareness of his humanity. Whilst this is in the film, what is going on in Tsotsi’s head does not seem that clear. In the book Tsotsi spares the cripple who then tells him:

“Mothers love their children. I know. I remember. They sing us songs when we are small. I’m telling you, Tsotsi. Mothers love their children.” After this there was silence for the words to register and make their meaning, for Tsotsi to stand up and say in reply: ‘They don’t. I’m telling you, I know they don’t’, and then he walked away.”

Tsotsi and cripple

Clearly Tsotsi is working through a childhood trauma. In learning mothers do love children, Tsotsi learns about humanity. The importance of Miriam in this situation is as a mother. This does work in the film in that she displays this love by mothers for the child abducted by Tsotsi.

The exchange with the cripple is part of a slow, developing process for Tsotsi. In the book memories and experiences are floating to the surface of Tsotsi’s consciousness and changing the way he sees the world. The reader learns these matters at the same time as Tsotsi. We watch his changing consciousness. This has a markedly different impact from the film where the flashbacks merely show us what Tsotsi remembers. It appears as if he does not think about these things, rather than presenting the trauma that has suppressed them.

Of course, this exploration of consciousness is easier in writing than on film. And it is not very productive to criticise a film for not being a book. But there is a film in the township cycle that manages something similar to that which Fugard manages in his novel. This is the 1978 South African film, Mapantsula, scripted by Oliver Schmitz (director) and Thomas Mogotlane (who plays the protagonist Panic). This earlier film parallels the novel Tsotsi in several ways. Panic is a sneak thief (the sense of the title). He is hard and ruthless and is feared in the township where he lives. Panic is arrested after a political demonstration. In gaol he is interrogated and pressurised to incriminate a union and political activist. However, whilst in prison Panic reviews the experiences that led to his arrest. As in Fugard’s novel the audience accompanies the protagonist as he remembers. In this case Panic’s change of consciousness results in an act of defiance, probably at the cost of his own life.

The film was produced in the South African apartheid exploitation cinema. It successfully subverted the censorship system by appearing as a mere genre movie. On release though, it was banned from theatrical exhibition. The authorities recognised the political power as audiences accompanied Panic in his consciousness raising story. Complex editing with both visual and aural flashbacks produced this effect. The film was effectively using montage in the manner recommended in the famous 1929 Soviet sound manifesto. This, of course, made the film rather unconventional and less than straightforward viewing.

Whilst Mapantsula used the conventions of the gangster genre, in many ways it was an example of a film ‘that confronts the system’. This is the idea of Third Cinema as set out in the famous 1960s Manifesto. The same Manifesto defined the Hollywood style film as the dominant cinema. And I would argue that, despite its use of native languages and its palpable sympathy for the oppressed black South Africans, both formally and ideologically the film of Tsotsi fits into the conventions of the mainstream or dominant cinema. The Time Out review of the film commented:

“Of course what distinguishes Hood’s film from the novel is history itself. Since Fugard wrote ‘Tsotsi’, the policy of apartheid has peaked and crumbled; democratic elections have arrived; and, crucially, the sharp disparity of wealth in South Africa has, at least partly, lost its racial edge. The townships remain, but a new black middle class has emerged. Hood confronts this division head-on. Tsotsi’s victims – from a homeless man in a wheelchair to a wealthy suburban couple- are black. It gives his film immediate, difficult relevance.”

In rewriting the film Hood has not only changed the period, he has moved the value system. In his commentary Hood states that Fugard ‘was happy with the film’ and then comments that he hopes he has been faithful to the book ‘thematically and spiritually’. The spirituality may remain, but I do think Hood’s film has moved away from the themes in the novel. The film of Tsotsi seems replete with the ideas of black accession to economic power and the bridge building represented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, (as with Time Out’s comments). It is worth noting that Tsotsi entered the Academy Awards as the official South African entry. It bears the stamp of official approval.

However, the view that there is economic change or real effective reconciliation in the new South Africa is a matter for serious debate and argument. The wealth holders remain very much as before, with a few (token?) black bourgeois. The film industry has been quickly assimilated into the global market, which is dominated by Hollywood. And the reconciliation process endured a serious deficit. P. W. Botha, who ruled over some of the most vicious violence against the black majority, and whose personal responsibility was well attested by evidence from the security forces, declined to attend the Commission. His contempt sentence was suspended and he was never forced to make an appearance. He was able to enjoy his remaining years of ill-gotten wealth and influence undisturbed. The endemic violence depicted in Tsotsi, part of the legacy of that apartheid rule, is mainly endured by the majority black population. The massacre of striking miners in 2012 is clear evidence of what forces are dominant in the new South Africa.

The rewriting of Tsotsi appears to support an official view of positive change. This is far removed from Fugard’s scathing depiction of the experience of oppression for black people in the late 1950s. Moreover, as Time Out also commented, “Fugard’s overriding interest was in disaffected black youth and the reasons behind their violent crimes.”

The movie version merely recycles generic explanations which may enthral audiences, but which hardly enlighten them.


The camera with the widescreen letter-box.

The camera with the widescreen letter-box.

Tsotsi is now available on DVD: extras include a commentary, deleted scenes and the alternative endings. Note however, in the UK Momentum Region 2 DVD the film has been cropped to 1.78:1 from the original theatrical 2.35:1; although the deleted endings are letter-boxed close to the original theatrical ratio. A Miramax Region 1 DVD, accessible on the Internet, does provide the original aspect ratio. The filmmakers appear to have centred the action with an eye to small screen presentations, so the main action is clear on the cropped version.

Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi was published by AD. Donker, London 1980. His notes and diary entries from the period when he was writing the novel were published in Guardian Review January 11th 2006. There is a discussion of the township cycle of films in ‘Discourses of Tears’, ITP FiIm Reader, 1996.

‘Towards a Third Cinema’ is a manifesto by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. You can find out more at Third Cinema Revisited.

The original article first appeared in the Media Education Journal, Issue 41. My thanks to the Editor to agreeing to this being publishing on the Blog.

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