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A Level Film and Media, African Cinema, Book Reviews

Studying Tsotsi

Studying Tsotsi, Judith Gunn, Auteur Publishing 2010, 120pp, ISBN: 978-1-906733-08-7

Tsotsi (South Africa/UK 2010) is one of the most popular films discussed on this website and it is widely studied in a UK context. Not surprisingly then, we were very interested in what this latest study guide from Auteur had to offer.

These study guides have now switched to a ‘pocket size’ – (162 x 117 mm), so in 120 pages there are perhaps 28,000 words in which to explore the film. I think that this is similar to the York Film Notes which tried a similar trick at the start of the decade.

The author’s blurb tells us that Judith Gunn is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Cirencester College and that she has worked in BBC radio as researcher, writer, producer and broadcaster. In Chapter 5 on Audience and Institution, Gunn reveals that she was a child in Africa and remembers going to the cinema in Tanzania to see a Hollywood/British film. She draws on both this experience and her BBC work in interesting ways and she refers to a number of interesting and useful books and articles that I will certainly investigate. For someone looking for material to help contextualise a reading of Tsotsi in relation to a set of media studies course objectives, there is certainly food for thought here. However, I’m less convinced that the guide will be helpful for film studies students and there are some real problems with the overall approach.

I couldn’t find anywhere in the book a statement about who the expected readership might be or what level of academic course is being addressed. Tsotsi is mentioned directly on the syllabus of the WJEC GCSE (i.e 14-17 year-olds in the main) in Film Studies, but this is a new course with relatively small (but growing) numbers of students. I would expect Auteur to be targeting the far larger group of A Level teachers and students on both media and film studies courses. The problem is that without a clear focus Gunn struggles to find a consistent level in terms of pitching to readers both theoretical ideas and cultural references. There is a range of theoretical references which on the one hand are inappropriate for GCSE students and on the other are sometimes presented in a potentially patronising way for A Level students – and sometimes the attempt to introduce ideas quickly makes them confusing. Getting the pitch right is very difficult and I suspect that here it is the guide’s structure that is problematic.

There are six chapters in all – History and Context, Narrative, The Image of Tsotsi, Representation: Stereotypes, Audiences and Institutions and finally ‘Themes’. The problematic chapters are those offering textual analysis and discussion of the film in the context of South African Cinema more generally. An early indication that things are not quite right is the assumption that this is a ‘Hollywood film’ in some way. There is some useful discussion in the guide of possible Hollywood elements in the film and Gavin Hood did indeed train in the US and has gone on to make Hollywood films, but Tsotsi is a UK/South Africa co-production which Miramax picked up after production. The prime mover behind the production was UK producer Peter Fudakowski.

More confusing still is the discussion of the ‘look’ of the film. I couldn’t find anything to warn readers that the UK DVD from Momentum actually uses the wrong aspect ratio, presenting the film in 16:9 or 1:1.78 instead of the ‘Scope ratio 1:2.35 used for the cinema version. All those students in the UK have probably studied the film unable to see the careful compositions. (As far as I can see the Miramax Region 1 disc has the correct ratio). Judith Gunn’s overall strategy involves comparing the shooting and editing style for Tsotsi with television soap opera and also with a series like The Wire, which seems odd to me. This just one example of an approach which might work for media studies but which more or less ignores the specific formal questions of film studies. Gavin Hood and his cinematographer Lance Gewer made some quite careful decisions about the look of the film – none of which are directly related to television aesthetics. The best resource on this is an article in American Cinematographer which is still online and well worth reading. As Gewer states:

“Gavin’s intention was to make an intensely emotional and engaging psychological thriller set in a world of contrasts — love and hate, wealth and poverty, revenge and forgiveness, anger and compassion — and widescreen was the only way we could visually tell that story. We needed to get a sense of the characters in the space and the broadness of that space; it’s a world vulnerable people inhabit.”

Here is why, ideally, students need to see the CinemaScope print. The rest of the article explains very well why decisions were made. Unfortunately, I think some of Judith Gunn’s commentary on this area is not particularly helpful. I’m also puzzled why, after referencing authoritative sources on South African Cinema in terms of 1930s-60s films she then decides to discuss more recent South African films only in terms of the Hollywood and UK productions based there, rather than investigate some of the more recent independents. It isn’t easy to access these films, I know, but students should be aware of the structure of South African Cinema – which is still largely segregated in terms of catering for largely white middle-class audiences in multiplexes and for much poorer Black audiences in what I assume are less salubrious halls in the townships (assuming that they still exist and haven’t closed with the spread of DVDs). Tsotsi is unique in coming out of a sector of the South African industry still mainly white but at least with a grasp of working-class South African culture.

In short, this guide will give media students access to some useful material, but film students will need to supplement it with some of the books mentioned in its Bibliography.

itpworld’s blog entry on Tsotsi is here.

. . . and another entry on itpworld including a report on a new venture in South Africa, ‘Sollywood’

There is also an article on the recent Durban International Film Festival by Maggie Miranda in the latest Media Magazine in which she discusses new South African films.

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