- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

Writer-director Gavin Hood was 9 years old the first time he saw himself — or at least someone like him — on a movie screen, in “E’Lollipop” (“Forever Young, Forever Free”), the 1976 film about an undying friendship between two South African students.

The little boy staring back at him wasn’t his mirror image, but his story was one Mr. Hood knew all too well. Like the South African lad in the film, Mr. Hood also had been separated from his black friend when the youngster had moved away to attend a different school.

It was a familiar tale, Mr. Hood recalled during a visit to the District last month.

“That story was probably happening all over the country,” he says, noting that in most cases, the spilts were caused by the segregationist policies of the country’s now abolished apartheid system.

He also remembers that childhood moment as the inspiration for his own career as a filmmaker. Until then, the only films playing in his hometown came from American or British directors.

“The feeling was this was something only people overseas could do,” Mr. Hood says.

Hopefully, “Tsotsi,” his acclaimed film about the life-changing epiphany of a ruthless South African street thug, will change all that. The movie won the Oscar for best foreign-language film March 5 — a win Mr. Hood hopes will spark the same emotion among South Africa’s new generation of young filmmakers that “E’Lollipop” ignited in him some 30 years ago.

“We have an incredible industry in terms of technicians, much like Canada. We’ve developed a huge infrastructure. You can rent any [film] equipment you like,” he says, but what’s missing are”enough artists with an ability to tell their stories in a compelling fashion.”

While both “Tsotsi” (which opened locally on Friday) and “E’Lollipop” are set in South Africa, the subject matter of the films couldn’t be more different. “E’Lollipop” explores an innocent friendship between childhood pals, but “Tsotsi” follows a young gang leader (Presley Chweneyagae) whose life changes when he carjacks a woman’s vehicle with a baby in the back seat. We watch Tsotsi mature from an uncaring hoodlum to someone with an ember of humanity still flickering within.

“There are many stories waiting to be told, but storytelling is a craft,” Mr. Hood says. “And as we train more people in the craft of storytelling, the stories that are there will be well told.”

Shot in Johannesburg, “Tsotsi” began generating buzz last fall by winning the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

Mr. Hood’s spirited “Viva Africa” cry and exuberant hugs during his Oscar acceptance speech underscore his love of his country and devotion to his work. That same joy bubbles up as he reflects on his early days, when he shot educational dramas for the South African department of health education.

Back then, he couldn’t have known just how much his interviews with street people, young prostitutes and gang leaders would prepare him for his award-winning film.

“I had a pretty good sense of this world, even though I wasn’t born in a shantytown,” Mr. Hood says.

That knowledge, and a love for Athol Fugard’s 1983 novel of the same name gave him the creative authority to bring the story to the big screen. But the success or failure of “Tsotsi” impacts more than just his burgeoning film career.

“As a filmmaker, you feel the pressure of being from a country that doesn’t make that many films,” says Mr. Hood, who speaks swiftly and with room-blanketing intensity.

“There’s a great deal of expectation and hope that you will not fail, which gives you a tremendous amount of hope, but also fear.”

An Oscar win is certainly encouraging, but “Tsotsi” made an impact long before the prestigious gold statuettes were handed out. During a South African screening, a small child stood up at one point, gestured to the screen and cried, “That’s me.”

“He did what I did when I was 9 years old. Whether he becomes a storyteller …” Mr. Hood says, his voice trailing off.

Yet through “Tsotsi’s” fame, his country’s fledgling film industry surely will see a boost in the number of productions.

“We are a growing body of work,” Mr. Hood says. “Every one of us who has some kind of success makes it easier for the next person and hopefully inspires someone as well.”

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