Beyond the Multiplex

An explosive Oscar hopeful from Soweto that's worthy of its hype. Plus: James Carville does Bolivia, and Robin Wright Penn stars in an art-house B-movie.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published February 23, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

We've got another foreign-language Oscar nominee this week -- a dynamite film from South Africa -- along with an important political documentary, one of the best in the recent wave. But before we get to all that: Warm-weather readers, I am humbled. Never again will I suggest that you are too blissed out to enjoy the latest in angst-ridden cinema, or that certain herbal crops rumored to be available in our great nation's milder climes have rendered you too mellow to leave home on someone else's schedule.

No, such calumnies have been laid to rest. My call for the best art-house theaters in pleasant climates has been impressively answered. Central Florida has been heard from, and the Kona Coast of the island of Hawaii has been heard from. Texas has been heard from, many times in fact. New Mexico has checked in, and so have some unlikely locations in California. (I will indeed strive to convince you that the Golden State is not entirely or even mostly populated by Merlot-sloshed, hybrid-driving bobo aesthetes, but we'll leave that for another occasion.)

Thanks to all who submitted, and I've got potential nominees for weeks ahead. But as they used to say on the "Highlander" TV series, there can be only one. Well, OK, there can be two. The people's choice award this week clearly goes to the Alamo Drafthouse, a mini-chain of seven independent theaters in and around Austin, Texas. The numerous readers who suggested this primarily mean the original downtown Alamo (which I'll get to see in person in a couple of weeks).

Now, the Alamo is clearly awesome: It has a full menu of food and drink served unobtrusively at your seat, and wireless Internet in all auditoriums. (Nothing like this exists yet in New York; the tradeoff for getting to see every art film early is being penned up inside venerable, uncomfortable theaters like hogs in a boxcar, and sold stale popcorn and scorched coffee at prices that would make the sleaziest cruise-ship director blush.) The downtown Alamo's film fare is bracingly eccentric, even as yuppified as Austin has reportedly become. In the next week you can see "On the Waterfront," "Flashdance," "976-EVIL," "The Muppet Movie," "The Spook Who Sat by the Door," "Candy," "The Memory of a Killer" and the Texas Indie Music Video Festival.

But, people: The Alamo is one of the nation's most famous movie theaters, and while it's in Texas, it beats at the very heart of independent Texas culture, something much fiercer and stranger than a milquetoast like George W. Bush could ever imagine. I was looking for someplace much less expected, found in a town where Volvos and Brie are still experienced as rare and puzzling phenomena. And here it is: the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Fla.

No, I'd never heard of Maitland, Fla., either. It's just outside Orlando, a few miles from Walt Disney World. Go half a mile past the end of Lee Road on South Orlando Avenue, just past the train overpass, and there you are: at a luxurious dinner cinema locally renowned for its fine food and willful programming decisions. (Reader John T. Harrell claims the proprietors will cancel an engagement if the film becomes "too mainstream," although this apparently did not apply to "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Super Size Me.") Right now the Enzian is showing "The White Countess," with "Caché" and "Tristram Shandy" to follow. The Enzian's 20-year survival, as its Web site boasts, is proof that "even in a community as mainstream as Orlando, there is an audience hungry for new voices in independent film." Get there early, and order me the pasta with Gulf shrimp and blue crab.

"Tsotsi": Crime, punishment and deliverance in the ghettos of the new South Africa
When South African director Gavin Hood was casting "Tsotsi," the story of a teenage gang leader in the black townships of Johannesburg, his producers asked him to come to Hollywood and consider "name" actors, presumably well-known African-American stars. (Try as I might, I couldn't get Hood or anyone else to tell me whom he auditioned.) Hood spent three weeks in Los Angeles before going home and casting his film entirely with young South African theater actors who could perform in Tsotsi-Taal, the hybrid street language of Soweto that blends Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and bits of English.

Such are the fateful choices that separate movies of integrity from half-baked compromises aimed at "global" audiences. Maybe "Tsotsi" could have been a good movie in English, with American rappers and TV actors playing the roles; we'll never know. What we've got instead is an explosive wide-screen vision of the street life of Soweto, bursting with music, danger and vitality, and the extraordinary story of a ruthless young criminal known only as Tsotsi -- the word might translate into American English as "gangsta" -- whose life is abruptly transformed by the aftermath of one of his violent deeds. As cynical as I can sometimes be about the seemingly random process by which foreign films are nominated for Academy Awards, this one is richly deserved.

As played by Presley Chweneyagae, a young actor with no formal training and little experience whom Hood found in his Johannesburg auditions, Tsotsi isn't much more than a kid, although his deeds are those of a hardened killer. Early in the film, we see his gang murder an ordinary man on a commuter train for his wallet, and watch Tsotsi himself beat one of his underlings mercilessly for expressing doubt and remorse. Life in Soweto is clearly difficult, and Tsotsi, a young man without family, has found a way to support himself. But we have good reason to fear him and even hate him.

"Tsotsi" was adapted by Hood from the novel by Athol Fugard, which was set during a particularly repressive period of apartheid, in the early 1960s. While Hood has changed various things about the setting and even the resolution, the basic arc of the story, and its problematic protagonist, remains the same. "This character is pretty extreme," Hood tells me during a recent telephone conversation. "Initially this is someone you truly do not like."

Fugard's book, Hood says, challenges the reader to believe that redemption and forgiveness are possible, even for someone as damaged and hardened as Tsotsi. "So this was a difficult challenge. You have to take the audience on a journey in 90 minutes where perhaps they don't forgive him, but they start to feel certain other things: But for a roll of the dice, that could be me."

The big question in making the film, Hood says, was: "Are we going to alienate the audience? You don't want him to just be a pickpocket or a petty thief, it's not enough of a journey." Having Tsotsi commit violent, even unforgivable crimes was the only way to prepare the movie's central moral conundrum. "You want to talk about forgiveness?" Hood asks. "What does it take to forgive, what is our capacity to forgive? Well, try this. "

Tsotsi's turning point arrives when he carjacks a woman in her suburban driveway, shooting her point-blank and making off with her BMW. He doesn't really know how to drive, and as he careens down the road he hears a strange sound from the back seat: There's a 3-month-old baby lovingly strapped in back there. Presumably your average, rational criminal would dump the kid on a social-service worker or clergy member, or simply ditch the car with tot inside and phone in its location to the cops. But Tsotsi isn't either of those things. It's easy to make this premise seem cornball, or just implausible, but in Tsotsi's hypercharged world of thuggery and fatalism, everything is symbolic and nothing happens by accident.

Wisely, Hood never lets us very far inside this angry boy's head. When Tsotsi forces a lovely young mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto) to breast-feed the abducted child at gunpoint, she naturally wants to know where its mother is. "He's mine," Tsotsi tells her, offering no further explanation. Obviously he has no idea how to feed, clean or care for an infant; when he leaves the baby sucking on a can of condensed milk, it's viciously swarmed by biting ants. (They are computer-generated.) Many viewers (especially parents) will watch "Tsotsi" with a clammy sensation of mounting dread: How long can this tiny, fragile creature survive the boy's clumsiness, ignorance and neglect?

Hood expertly builds the drama as the police comb the volatile township for the missing child, the paralyzed mother fights for her life and Tsotsi distances himself from his gang followers, who begin to drift away to a rival leader (played by South African musical superstar Zola). With Miriam's help, Tsotsi keeps the child alive and concealed, but he begins to understand two important things: One way or another, the world won't let him keep this baby. And however he may now feel about his life and his criminal past, the story isn't likely to end well.

Tsotsi's story, says Hood, is a fable. "This event has cracked him open and forced a process of self-examination. He feels genuine remorse for what he has done, and the question -- which is unanswered, I think -- is whether he can still save himself. He has truly, and suddenly, reached a place where he's had an epiphany. What I hope is that we have stayed on the right side of this story. We want to reach a place where there's some hope. These characters are deeply flawed and they do bad things, but we didn't want to end up with shooting everybody, like in some 'cool' gangster movie."

One obvious question has been raised about "Tsotsi" in some quarters: Why is a white director with an expensive American education telling this story about post-Mandela South Africa, in which every speaking character is black (except one police officer)? "I'd be naive to think that won't be asked of me," says Hood. "On one level, the answer is: What do you think of Spike Lee directing '25th Hour,' which has no black people in it? What do you think of Ang Lee directing 'Brokeback Mountain'? I don't know what his sexuality is and it doesn't matter, but those cowboys definitely aren't Taiwanese.

"Then there's another answer, which is that sometimes as an outsider you may have less of an investment, a clearer view. I worked in the townships for three years [as an educational filmmaker], and got to know some of the people. And remember, I am a craftsman, I am a storyteller. What we do in this business is venture into worlds other than our own. If I have not told the story well, then that is a flaw, regardless of my color or race or background.

"You could set this movie in South Central L.A. or Mexico City or Moscow. I'm not making a movie about black people. I'm making a movie about a disturbed, angry kid who has been abandoned. The specificity of Johannesburg gives it a flavor and images not often seen on-screen, and Johannesburg is my city. As a white South African who has been privileged, I'm just happy I could apply my craft to a story in my hometown."

"Tsotsi" opens Feb. 24 in major cities, with a national release to follow.

"Our Brand Is Crisis": Selling democracy overseas, whether the customers want it or not
"I'm not interested in making a movie about a bunch of creeps," says Rachel Boynton, director of the fascinating documentary "Our Brand Is Crisis," which follows a group of high-powered American political consultants working on the 2002 presidential election in Bolivia. "That's easy to do, right? I'm interested in complicated things, in shades of gray."

Indeed, what makes Boynton's film stand out amid the current crop of political documentaries is its rigorous reportorial fairness, and its refusal to simplify material in order to score facile ideological points. It might have been easy, from a left-wing perspective, to demonize the consultants from Greenberg Carville Shrum -- the now-defunct Washington firm headed by former Clinton aides Stan Greenberg and James Carville -- as they stage-managed the campaign of American-style liberal reformer Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada for the Bolivian presidency.

That would have been both unfair and, as Boynton observes, uninteresting. Her two principal protagonists are GCS pollster and analyst Jeremy Rosner (who was key man on the campaign) and Sánchez himself, a millionaire mine-owner and former president known to Bolivians as Goni. One can disagree with these men's visions of Bolivia's future, or their political methods, but there can be no question that they sincerely want to rescue this poor and isolated country from its economic crisis. "It's really important in the beginning of the movie to establish that these guys really believe in what they're doing," Boynton says. "That's a fundamental part of the story."

For someone who works in the shadowy business of shaping public opinion, in fact, Rosner comes off as achingly sincere. He's a trim, enthusiastic and strikingly intelligent man, distressingly eager to pour out his innermost thoughts for Boynton's camera. When she asks him, early in the film, whether he sees GCS's work in Bolivia as an expression of American idealism, he mulls the question seriously. He hopes that's true, he says. Of course GCS is working for profit, it's not a charity. But its principals (all mainstream or liberal Democrats) also believe in helping the democratic process take root around the world. "We do this because we believe in a particular brand of democracy," he says, "market-based and modern, but with broad benefits. That's why we were working for Goni, that's why we were in Bolivia."

It's the key moment in "Our Brand Is Crisis" (a phrase actually uttered in the film by advertising consultant Tad Devine). GCS plotted every move by Goni during the campaign -- every heartwarming TV spot, every attack ad, every debate strategy, every photo op -- based on the conviction that he best represented the "particular brand of democracy" it was selling, and that that brand was best for Bolivia (and pretty much everywhere else).

Many Bolivians were not convinced. During Goni's previous term as president during the '90s, he was seen (whether fairly or not) as having sold off the country's assets to foreign companies and as having promised a lot of social benefits that were never delivered. It doesn't help that he's rich in a poor country, white in a nation that is mostly mestizos and indigenous people, or that he's lived so much of his life in the United States he speaks Spanish with a pronounced Yankee accent. Rosner tells him at one point that for about 55 percent of the electorate, the only question about Goni is "how high the gallows should be."

Yet Goni, as Boynton says, remained confident that he had prescribed the right medicine for Bolivia and could do so again. Her film was only possible, she says, because of "the conflict between Goni's perception that he had done the right thing and Bolivia's perception that he had sold out the country. That's why he let me film. He was convinced that he was the right guy for the country. And the consultants believed that he was the right guy for the country. If they were working for a guy they didn't believe in, they would never have let me film."

What follows is on one level an exciting insider-baseball political drama: Can Rosner and the other undeniably ingenious consultants massage this seemingly unpalatable candidate into something a bare plurality of Bolivians will accept? (Goni doesn't need a majority to be elected; it's a three-way election, with other major candidates running to his right and his left.) Do focus groups, attack ads and tracking polls work as well in a nation of impoverished campesinos as in a nation of comfortable suburbanites? And if they get this guy elected, will his patented privatization-and-globalization remedy work any better for poor Bolivians than it did the last time?

Those of you who follow global news will already know the answers to some of those questions, but Boynton wants as many people as possible to see the film without knowing much about the outcome. "I hope the film works as an exciting story," says the petite, loquacious director, who looks younger than her 32 years (another factor that may have worked in her favor). "I hope it has you on the edge of your seat: 'What's going to happen?' 'Can they pull this off?' At the same time, I hope it raises a lot of questions about our role in the world right now. Questions about our relationship to everywhere else, not just Bolivia, about what we bring when we go overseas, and what kind of assumptions we walk in the door with.

"I really think the Americans in the film, whether you like them or not, are emblematic of us as a nation," she goes on. "We go around the world and we've got this idea that we know what's going to work. I don't want people to mistake this for a movie about Bolivia. It's about the world and it's about America. When we talk about spreading democracy around the world -- is that really what we're trying to do? At some idealistic level, maybe yeah. But there are a lot of other things we're trying to spread too."

"Our Brand Is Crisis" opens March 1 at Film Forum in New York, with other cities to follow in late March.

"Sorry, Haters": The Manhattan yuppie woman, the Arab cab driver, his sister-in-law and a bomb
Jeff Stanzler's low-budget drama "Sorry, Haters" is a well-acted little thriller of the sort sometimes called a "twisty" -- I wouldn't call it a great movie, but it'll keep you guessing about its characters and it has an intriguing mean streak. Despite the overlay of post-9/11 politics and social satire, "Sorry, Haters" is basically a B-movie packaged for an art-house audience -- but if that's a burgeoning micro-trend, I approve of it too. (Outside of direct-to-video and made-for-cable, the B-movie has pretty much died out in Hollywood of late.)

Stanzler takes a stressed-out New York professional woman (Robin Wright Penn) and puts her, late one night, in the cab driven by Ashade (Abdellatif Kechiche), a devout Muslim and Syrian immigrant. Over the course of a mysterious personal errand to the New Jersey suburbs and their return, the two people's stories come out, or seem to. The woman is Phyllis, a programming exec at an MTV-like network who's in charge of a series called "Sorry, Haters," in which celebs display their gratuitous wealth to the masses. Ashade is a Ph.D. chemist who is taking care of his French sister-in-law (Élodie Bouchez) and her baby; his brother was recently seized at the airport and disappeared to Guantánamo. Phyllis has clout and thinks she can help; Ashade is of course grateful for this Samaritan's intervention.

As I say, these are the two people's stories; the reality, in each case, may be a bit more complicated. If you pay attention, you'll figure out pretty fast which one of them is the most outrageous liar, but Stanzler's script has laid many traps for both people and for us. Penn, a fine actress always overshadowed by her husband, is particularly good as a single career woman beset by voracious bitterness toward herself and the world. Kechiche, a Tunisian-born actor and director with an elegant bearing, has a more straightforward role, but as his relationship with Phyllis ravels and unravels, Ashade also displays some darker patches.

Even in this plot summary, I've already deliberately misled you; it's just that kind of movie. There's an utterly implausible terrorism subplot, along with a funny supporting role by Sandra Oh as a co-worker at the Q-Dog network, and some entertaining snippets of "Sorry, Haters," Phyllis' purported show. But basically the movie rises or falls with Penn and Kechiche, as two lonely people drawn to each other in the American night, with knives drawn. In their best moments, they find an emotional truth in Stanzler's script that transcends its increasingly grotesque story and alleged political significance. And, of course, there's a sting in the tail you may be expecting but still won't quite predict.

"Sorry, Haters" opens March 1 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities. It will also be made available via IFC's Video on Demand pay-cable service, although details have not been announced.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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