Gavin Hood studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa before he went to the USA to study film at UCLA, California.
1993 he won the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award for his first screenplay "A Reasonable Man".
Back in South Africa he made educational movies about HIV for which he won an Artes Award. In 1999 he directed his own version of "A Reasonable Man", followed in 2001 by "Desert and Wilderness", an adaptation from the children`sâ€™ book by Polish Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Now, his latest work "Tsotsi" is receiving world-wide acclaim.
AVIVA-Berlin: The novel you adapted for your film originally takes place in the 50s during Apartheid. In your screenplay the story is transferred into a time after Apartheid. What were the most important things you had to change?
Gavin Hood: The novel is set in early Apartheid when the government became increasingly aggressive in terms of forcing its politics of segregation. The background to "Tsotsi" in the novel is settled into these conditions. He is an orphan because his father has left to join a political resistance group and his mother was dragged away one night by the security police to be interrogated where the father is. This traumatises the child. When the father comes home the young child doesnâ€™t really know his father and is frightened by him. The father is extremely emotionally stressed and angry. The dog is barking and he kicks it. All the child sees is an angry father and he runs away, becomes an orphan on the street.
From that point, the story in the novel and the story in the film are really very similar. The child becomes an orphan because of political and social forces, beyond its understanding and its knowledge.
That is the same in the modern story. He is an orphan not because the politics of Apartheid but because of the tragedy of the HIV epidemic. The mother is dying because of HIV, the father doesnâ€™t understand. This is in the early 90s when I was working in educational programs where I was making stories of HIV to inform the people of the townships. Many people didnâ€™t want to believe this was happening, it was very frightening to them. Theyâ€™re was a lot of misunderstanding about it. The father in the film is not coping emotionally, he is drinking. He wants the boy to move away from the mother because he thinks the mother is sick which is understandable. He is very angry, the dog is barking. The boy runs outside and then he runs away from his home. In that moment he becomes a boy who is trying to take care of himself on the streets. And in that sense the emotional journey in the movie and in the novel are the same. A young person without protective support trying to figure out how to live.
AVIVA-Berlin: How did you get in contact with the main actor Presley Chweneyagae? Itâ€™s his first movie role and he grow up in a township himself.
Gavin Hood: When I was casting I wasnâ€™t looking for an inexperienced actor. I was just looking for the best actor I could find for every role, because these roles are all very emotionally demanding, especially the leading role of Tsotsi. One day, this incredible young man walked into the audition: Presley Chweneyagae, who has unbelievable emotional range, and yet has never made a film before. His story is wonderful: When he was six years old, his mother send him to the local community theatre and he began to take classes. This kept him out of the streets. His mother was very happy with it and he did a lot of amateur plays like "King Lear". As he was seventeen he was seen by a scout of the state theatre who hired him to play "Hamlet". He is really a young man with an extraordinary story. He goes from an amateur to his first professional play - and that in the part of "Hamlet", probably one of the most complicated characters ever written. And now, his first role in the movies is the leading role of Tsotsi. An incredible talent.
AVIVA-Berlin: There has been some criticism that youâ€™re playing with clichÃ©s with regard to criminality and life in the slums, that it is the view from the eyes of a white person. What do you say to that?
Gavin Hood: Yes, I am confronted with criticism like that. But I am rather bored with it.
I am a storyteller. I grew up in Africa. I am not interested in the story because itâ€™s a black story. That is not why I made the film.
I am interested in the story because itâ€™s a human story. The characters have a darker skin, so what? Why do we divide everybody like that? Is Ang Lee when he makes "Brokeback Mountain" interested in that film because he is gay? No, he is not. And if he is, I donâ€™t care. What interests is that itâ€™s a magnificent story of the human heart. What artists are looking for, I hope, and certainly I am, is something which is profoundly human. These surface things which are our religion, our race or even our gender are not the way we find each other. We find each other by looking beyond these issues and looking at what we have in common emotionally. For example, if Presley`s mother died his feelings of pain and loss would be probably exactly the same as my feelings of pain and loss if my mother would die. These are human issues and "Tsots"i is a story about a young person who is living in a state of urban deprivation without propitiate support in a tough society. That could have been Moscow, Mexico City, Shanghai. Itâ€™s not about race, country, nationality. I was more interested how a young person finds out who he is and becomes an adult.
AVIVA-Berlin: Where do you think the extraordinary violence in South Africa comes from?
Gavin Hood: Itâ€™s a really difficult question to answer.
I think itâ€™s a combination of a number of facts, but mostly itâ€™s because of a collapse of social structures which happened of a number of reasons. First, the legislative of Apartheid in which a whole generation of people was given inferior education and has been segregated - not able to get jobs about a certain level. We are still experiencing the effects of that segregation. On top of that, just when we were beginning to overcome these problems, we have the HIV crisis - it seems so unfair for a country which has overcome so much. But, we have it. In the beginning it wasnâ€™t dealt with very well. That changed, but the result is an enormous amount of orphans and the crisis of health care. So, we have another social dynamic which is very tough. And then, you have additionally issues of poverty, you have issues of wars and conflicts with countries from the north. From there traumatised people are fleeing to South Africa. If youâ€™re coming from the Congo or Zimbabwe, South Africa is an opportunity to have a much better life. Johannesburg is a huge city with a lot of powerful economics factors - there is a high amount of employment, industries, a lot of work. But not enough for the volume of people who are coming in search for that work. So there is a high unemployment rate and shantytowns developing around the city - expectations which are not met, frustrations and from these dynamics you get a certain violence.
AVIVA-Berlin: The soundtrack was written by Zola, who played Fela. How did you work together on that? Did you involve him in the development of the screenplay to find the perfect music?
Gavin Hood: No, I worked on the screenplay based on Athol Fugard`s novel and then, when we were looking for music for the film, Zola`s music just showed out. It is wonderful gift for a director when youâ€™re making a film settled in a certain environment to find such an incredible music which comes from this environment: It was tremendously helpful. Because one thing you want to do as a film-maker is: You want to entertain your audience. People go to the movies to be emotionally moved, excited and entertained. The second thing is: Give them another gift which is something to talk about afterwards. For me, a good movie does these two things: It entertains, it doesnâ€™t preach to me and doesnâ€™t want to be superior. It grabs me and takes me on a ride. And afterwards, when I go for coffee with my friends, then we have much to talk about. So, what the music really helps with, is to make a deal with the audience.
Because this music is so great and so energised itâ€™s like saying: "I promise you will not get be bored, this movie will give us some energy." Then, when you pull the music out, in the quieter moments of the film, there is this dynamic happening between him and the young woman. For me, those scenes are even louder. Having the music and then taking it out helps to play with the rhythm of the film and, from a pure creative point of view, with hooking the audience.
AVIVA-Berlin: In Germany there has just been a movie about street kids in Berlin which was filmed in grey-blue and in hard-grain. You chose very brilliant, warm colours.
Gavin Hood: Yes, when you do a ghetto-movie everybody expects that you choose 16 mm, thick-grained, hand-held. So why should I imitate everybody else? But thatâ€™s not a good reason to choose a style.
You choose a style because you feel that will serve the story best. The most important question for a film-maker is how do I best tell the story and what is it about. In fact, "Tsotsi" seems to be a crazy gangster movie. Actually, itâ€™s a very one in one intermediate story about a young man and a young woman, about a young man and a three-month old child. Therefore it needs a style which is more still, that keeps the mythical quality of the emotional journey. Trying to pretend it to be documentary would not have been cinema for me.
AVIVA-Berlin: The movie won the Oscar for the â€˜Best Foreign Language Filmâ€™. How does that effect your film-making?
Gavin Hood: Winning the Oscar changed a lot of things. It makes film-making much easier. Before I had to look for people to finance a movie and now people see me for someone to get their films made. In the first week after the Oscar we got seventy scripts. Of course you canâ€™t read them all and a lot of them are not good. Sometimes you ask yourself why they are sending these scripts but then you realise they think you can help them to get things done. But itâ€™s great to have access to producers in a very easy way now, before it was more difficult.
AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much for the interview.