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The Importance of Film Festivals: “Tsotsi” Filmmaker Gavin Hood

Despite the extra burden of responsibility of making a film in his native South Africa, filmmaker Gavin Hood has happily enjoyed riding the wave of film festivals to success.
This has resulted in Hood’s film “Tsotsi” being nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at next month’s Academy Awards. The Oscars will held in Hollywood on March 5.
Hood was recently on the South Coast to participate in the director’s panel at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Held at the Lobero Theater, other directors included Paul Haggis (“Crash”), Bennett Miller (“Capote”), Tomas Bezucha (“The Family Stone”), Duncan Tucker (“Transamerica”), Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”), and Hany Abu Assad (“Paradise Now”). The panel was moderated by “The Daily Variety” editor and writer Peter Bart.
The film is an updated version of Athol Furgrad’s novel about a gangster named Tsotsi’s (meaning “thug” in the street language of the South African townships) transformation after discovering a baby in the back of a car he had just stolen. In addition to “Tsotsi’s” Oscar nomination, the film has won audience awards at the Toronto, America Film Institute (Los Angeles) and Edinburgh Film Festivals and was a Golden Globe nominee. It is currently playing at the SBIFF to sold-out audiences. Hood wrote the screenplay and directed “Tsotsi”.
A few days after the director’s panel, Hood spoke about film festivals and how they helped overcome the difficulties of getting an independent film to the world public despite coming from a country that until recently didn’t have a recognizable voice in the industry.
“Mainly frankly distribution-wise, without festivals I can’t imagine how films like “Tsotsi” can be released,” Hood said. “And if wasn’t for doing well at film festivals, I shudder to think where we would be. The reality is there is a lot more movies made than screens to show them on. And the competition is massive. In theaters, most people are watching the same films.”
Hood went on to add that of the 335 films at the Toronto Festival, only “a couple dozen” make it into a screen.
“That thought is utterly frightening,” Hood said. “It is scary that something you have spent three to five years of your life working on may never be seen.
“ A lot of people don’t realize that when a film like “Tsotsi” wins the audience award at Toronto, its not fake like when they think people get overemotional after winning, because I think they aren’t aware of what is at stake because it’s not just a ‘well done’ on lovely piece of art, although that’s really nice. Its also suddenly opening the film up to possibilities you have dreamed up were afraid but never materialized.”
For films made in smaller countries like South Africa, possible roadblocks are lifted via the festivals according to Hood.
“How can we get any international distribution for a film like ours, which doesn’t have any international names?” Hood rhetorically asked. It is made in a language pretty specific to the South Africa townships, and Tom Cruise doesn’t star in it. We would just disappear.
“That is why it is so gratifying to have these audience awards that they are offering. My first film went to festival in ‘98, and I don’t remember there being an audience award. There was a jury award. But so often you see films that win in the jury award to not do as well in the marketplace as films that win the audience awards.
“The rise of the audience award helped “Tsotsi” catch a wave we were lucky to reach. Film festival goers are the people who are getting the film out into the world. The audiences are doing more for the film than just giving it a pat on the back. You are giving it life.”
Hood went on to describe it in terms of one of his favorite pastimes, surfing.
“ When you come off the lip of a big one, you don’t know if you are going to make it or if you are going to crash,” Hood explained “It is more never more nerve wracking to know that there are only a couple of waves out in the big blue ocean of filmmaking. If you don’t crack one of the half dozen waves (film festivals) your ride is over.”
Being in festivals is a tremendous help with films on a budget, Hood said.
“Films need a marketing hook,” Hood said. “That is why studios are insistent that you need a star to generate your movie. If you don’t have big stars you need another kind of hook out there, the only hook out there is if you are in festivals. This then gives your marketing guys to give them something to work with.”
And then there are the awards.
“I cannot stress enough that the academy award nomination was made entirely possible because of festivals getting us there in the first place,” Hood said. “ The Oscar, the British Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination, the distribution all of these things came because of the Toronto Audience Award. You can take nothing for granted in this business.”
If you don’t think it’s tough think this. Of the five films nominated for a Golden Globe, three were, but two weren’t. There were 57 films from different countries submitted. Of those, each had to be nominated from the films in their own country to get there. You are terrified there is the possibility of not even being put forward.”
He later went on to say that in addition to the pressures of promoting “Tsotsi” to get it on worldwide release, he felt a tremendous responsibility for the future of his country’s exposure to cinema.
“You work on these things for a long time, “Tsotsi” has been 3 years in the making, and when nominations come through, you cant help but feeling so emotional,” Hood said. “You are happy yes, but shat you are really feeling is a massive sense of relief. A huge number of people have a lot at stake like your producer, investors, and the entire cast and crew. And in our case our country that doesn’t make a lot of films.”
“Plus there are a lot of people in South Africa hoping that you will do well and are very disappointed if you don’t. If you do, do well, it helps a great many of people involved in South African film by opening the door for them to contribute to a body of work. It also helps solicit investors to not only assist large scale projects, but to help local filmmakers develop. Eventually this will allow more people to want to make films.”
“Tsotsi” is not the first South African film to be nominated for an Oscar. Last year, “Yesterday”, a film about an HIV infected mother’s life struggling quest broke through. Directed by Anant Singh, “Yesterday” was filmed in the Zulu language.
“Yesterday” gave the rest of us great encouragement,” Hood said. “We are proud to follow and add to the (fledgling legacy). We South African filmmakers aspire to do good work in developing a film to be seen and abroad to strengthen an industry that once only made one or two films a year.
“Unlike America, where there are so many I think that every South African filmmaker feels an additional pressure over and above the normal because we make so few films. If something fails people will say something like ‘Oh you set us back’. So, it’s really exciting to feel that you discharged a certain responsibility that you might not have had in a country that makes many more films. Also, in some ways it is unhealthy pressure. What we need to be doing is making more films. Every aspect should be taught with a huge range. In my country, the expectation is that it has to be THE South African movie. It cannot be. It adds to the pressure and puts undue stress on the maker when all they should be concentrating on is making a good film.” (*Note: Several filmmakers who were in town for the SBIFF commented that Hood’s film was anything but South Africa specific. Joel Bender, the director of “Karla”, a film about famed Canadian serial rapist killers Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo said that “Tsotsi” could be set in any major city, whether it is Johannesburg or Los Angeles.)
But it’s not that Hood is complaining about anything.
“With ‘Tsotsi’ I am extremely happy because a lot of people are happy from Athol, to the investors, to the people who have viewed the film,” Hood said. “In some ways it sounds silly but in some ways you feel very happy but you feel and enormous sense of relief that you don’t get this phone call saying “Oh don’t worry you tried really hard” But you know if that voice is your investor is being nice because they are also usually disappointed. “
“But I have to tell you, this has been a wonderful ride for us. It has been the most fortunate time thanks to our festival run. My greatest hope that this success and the inspiration of ‘Yesterday’ before us, opens up doors for the future of South African filmmaking.”
Mike Takeuchi

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