Visual Text essay for Tsotsi Describe important visual or aural symbol(s) in a visual text you have studied and analyse how the symbol(s) helped develop ideas in the text. In the film Tsotsi directed by Gavin Hood there were many important symbols. The film is about a young man, Tsotsi (a nickname which means thug) who lives a life of crime in Johannesburg, South Africa. The film is set in post-apartheid South Africa and shows a few days which change the life of the main character.
The film helps us to understand the struggles that blacks face today years after their mistreatment under apartheid. Symbols such as dice, light and journeys are used in this film to develop the ideas of luck and chance, hope and the journey towards redemption. A visual symbol of dice is the first that develops ideas in the film. In the opening scenes there is a slow-motion close up shot of a hand shaking two dice and throwing them down on a table. The setting is Tsotsi’s shack, it is smoky and a knife is wedged into the wooden table top.
The dice are part of a gambling game and symbolise Tsotsi’s life, which is a gamble in itself. Everything can and does change in a symbolic “roll of the dice”. With every action Tsotsi takes to survive – from mugging an innocent man on a train or stealing a car – he gambles and does not know the outcome. He risks getting killed in these criminal acts, and as we see through the film – a fellow gangster of his, Boston, does meet death when he makes a fatal mistake. The idea of luck and chance is developed further when Tsotsi steals a car from a middle class family.
The driver tries to stop him, and he shoots her. As he drives off he realises there is a baby in the back. As fate would have it, in the attempt to simply steal a car, he has ‘accidentally’ become a kidnapper and has maimed a woman for life. However, the chance encounter with the baby becomes the trigger to Tsotsi’s journey towards redemption. In caring for the child, Tsotsi gradually becomes more decent – feeling guilt for his actions and learns to feel love for another human being, something he had forgotten how to do as a result of a traumatic childhood.
This motif of luck was also intended by the director to relate to the audience. As he says in the ‘Making of Tsotsi’, “but for the roll of a die, Tsotsi could be you or I. ” Light is also used symbolically in the film to signify hope and goodness. The light contrasts with Tsotsi’s appearance which is dark (he wears a black leather jacket) and aggressive. His crimes usually seem to take place under cover of darkness. When Tsotsi follows a woman with a baby home in his township, he lurks in the shadows. Once inside her house, light beams through her stained glass door panels and windows and a glass mobile.
Miriam’s loving, caring nature is reflected in her brightly lit home and the colourful yellow and orange African robes she wears. She is a “guiding light” and models love and compassion. For example, she breastfeeds the baby Tsotsi brings to her at first out of fear, but then asks him if she can change him. She is tender and loving towards the unfamiliar child and asks Tsotsi if she can look after him. In another scene, she sits at her kitchen table near a gas lamp and tells him “you can’t give that woman back her legs, but at least give her back her child. She becomes a mentor and teacher who helps Tsotsi change into a more decent person. She teaches him to see the world differently. In the scene where Tsotsi sees her mobiles, he only sees “broken glass”. She teaches him to see “colour and light”. Through flashbacks we learn that Tsotsi was an AIDS orphan and he comes to see Miriam as a maternal figure who shows him the parental love he never experienced as a child. The physical journeys Tsotsi makes in the film develop the idea of an internal , symbolic journey.
We are shown many long shots of Tsotsi walking alone or running. The shot of him walking on the train tracks at night, with slow haunting instrumental music is used several times to symbolise his inner journey. Tsotsi seems to be considering what he has done. Slowly we see him change from a violent, angry young man who only thinks of himself to a man who begins to have empathy for others. His love for the baby and realisation of the pain his parents must feel at their loss leads him to decide to return it.
His final physical journey is through his township, the wasteland, the train station and finally out to the wealthy suburbs to give the child back. It is reversal of his original journey to steal the car. In giving away something that has become precious to him, he gains his soul. The audience also makes the journey with Tsotsi. At the beginning we see him as a cold, hard criminal and feel horrified by his actions. However as the film progresses, the director makes him more likeable by introducing some comic scenes and using flashbacks so we understand his difficult childhood and we begin to sympathise with him.
By the end he has become a decent human being. In addition to all the visual symbols, aural symbols such as aggressive Kwaito (gangsta rap style) music with dogs barking and a snake rattle sound effect are used to hint at Tsotsi’s violent, predator like nature at the beginning. These reinforce the themes too. However, the predominant symbols of dice, light and journeys are vital in developing the idea of Tsotsi’s journey towards redemption. It is a journey brought about by a chance encounter and guided by “light” in Tsotsi’s life.