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A streetwise criminal comes of age in the South African film Tsotsi, photographed by Lance Gewer and directed by Gavin Hood

Unit photography by Blid Alsbirk
Photos courtesy of Miramax Films

Depicting a few days in the life of a young gangster on the streets of Johannesburg, Tsotsi is set in a world many filmmakers might have rendered with visceral camerawork, an extreme color palette and dizzying editing patterns. But the story, which comes from a novel by Athol Fugard, called for another tack. The days in question follow a carjacking that leaves the gangster, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), in possession of a newborn boy who was tucked away in the back seat when the car was stolen. Panicked over the find, Tsotsi stows the infant in his dilapidated shack, and over the next several days, as he tries to figure out what to do, he begins grappling with an entirely new set of feelings: empathy, responsibility and remorse.

Although violence and instability pervade Tsotsi’s life, the film is an intimate study of his emotional and psychological evolution, and this focus on the inner realm led director/writer Gavin Hood, who adapted Fugard’s book for the screen, to offer the project to director of photography Lance Gewer, a fellow South African whose work he had admired for some time. “Lance and I had mutual friends in the industry, and I bumped into him at the lab or the studio every so often, but I was aware of his work, particularly his early short films, before I actually met him,” says Hood. “He has a very classical eye, as well as a certain restraint that really allows the performances in the pieces he photographs to shine, and that’s very much what I needed for Tsotsi. I wanted to achieve a beautiful film that you only think about as beautiful after you’ve come out of the story.”

Born in Johannesburg, Gewer has honed his skills on South African film and television projects for 20 years. Although the country’s favorable weather and proximity to Europe have made it a favorite destination for commercial shoots, Gewer notes that apartheid and its complicated legacy have created an unusual training ground for aspiring cinematographers. “Working your way up the industry ladder, especially during the changes South Africa has gone through in the time I’ve been involved, is not your normal experience,” he says. “The commercial world goes on all the time, but the feature world doesn’t necessarily. There have been eras of bad films and eras of almost no films, but there have been periods when a flux of films enabled one to learn the ropes. I was lucky to enter the industry during one of those periods, the mid-1980s, and I worked on 13 features and almost 200 commercials as a camera assistant.”

By that time, however, Gewer had left the cinematography program at Pretoria Technikon Film and Television School and was already shooting and directing independent projects. A number of these were low-budget 16mm features produced for African audiences and destined for distribution in villages and townships, where they were typically projected in people’s garages or community halls. “We shot them in three to five days with a crew of four,” he recalls. “The shoots were really quick and nasty yet were an incredible experience. It was great to shoot film and work within those limitations because that’s ultimately what filmmaking is about: making the most of what’s at your disposal.” As he continued to compile cinematography credits, Gewer regularly returned to the industry ranks to assist, but in 1993 he decided to pursue cinematography full time. “I had to kind of leave the mainstream industry to become a cinematographer because I found that trying to work my way through the industry held me back. I’d take a step away and do what I could do, and then I’d have to find my way back in again.”

Before notching his first feature credit on Beat the Drum (2003), Gewer shot documentaries such as Mapun-gubwe — Secrets of the Sacred Hill and White Farmers, Black Land, and short films such as Sacrifice and Come See the Bioscope (both of which he also directed). It was Gewer’s work on short films that caught Hood’s eye at film festivals and other showcases in the region. “When I looked at Lance’s work, I felt we had a very similar way of seeing,” says the director. “I want every moment in a film to count, and I attribute that to my background in still photography, where you’re trying to capture an emotional moment. You could freeze almost any frame in Lance’s movies and it would feel like a beautiful still that could stand on its own. That’s a particular sensibility; others see the world in a much more kinetic way.

Tsotsi appears to be a gangster story, but it’s actually much more an intimate, coming-of-age story,” Hood continues. “Tsotsi transitions from an angry young man who does some really terrible things to a young man who finally begins to know himself, and to make that transition believable I knew I needed an actor with an extraordinary ability to communicate thoughts, and, in order to read those thoughts, a cinematographer who would light and frame and shoot so that we as director and cinematographer were not on display, but rather the performance was on display.”

This emphasis on the internal led the filmmakers to develop a style so subtle that a slight, slow push in on a character has the kind of dramatic impact that is more often achieved with a much bolder move. “The cinematography of Tsotsi lies in interiors, the emotional states of the characters,” says Gewer. “There isn’t much camera movement, and when there is a move it’s always dictated by the choreography of the characters and the story. Our work was more about keeping the camera quite still, exercising restraint, studying the characters and trying to get to know them quite intimately. We worked with the emotional beats of the story, trying to catch every nuance and implication.” Hood adds, “When people heard what Tsotsi was about, a number of them said, ‘You should shoot it like City of God,’ but stylistically our film is closer to Central Station, more of a one-on-one relationship movie. City of God is a great film and the handheld style was appropriate for it, but Tsotsi is not a chaotic story apart from its opening scenes. We had to get the audience right into Tsotsi’s mind, and he’s initially somebody most viewers feel is very different from them. I didn’t want to use handheld because I didn’t want the audience to feel we were in the room, documenting; I didn’t want to look at the character in a vérité way.”

One of the first decisions the filmmakers made was to shoot in Super 35mm. Gewer explains, “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.” Noting that the production’s original budget was even more modest than the final one of $3 million, he adds, “We didn’t have enough money to shoot widescreen, but the producers [Peter Fudakowski and Paul Raleigh] went out and raised it. They were behind us all the way.”

Most of Tsotsi was filmed with a single camera, a Moviecam Compact, and Zeiss Variable Prime lenses. Gewer also used Angenieux 5:1 17-102mm and 10:1 25-250mm zooms and a Canon 400mm prime, but the Variable Primes carried the day. “Our shoot was about eight weeks, and the Variable Primes helped us save time,” he notes. “Instead of physically moving the camera you can slightly reframe the shot, and if you’re tracking with an actor you can push in during the movement and disguise a zoom.” He cites his focus puller, Pam Laxen, for her excellence in the field. “Pam has worked on about 50 features and is an incredibly good assistant. We shot roughly 80 percent of Tsotsi at night, and we were shooting wide open. We were always taking the stop right down for extra depth. Pam copes with this situation extremely well and is also very good at running the space around the camera for me; she helps others do what they need to do in an un-chaotic way.”


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