Tsotsi and A Reasonable Man

Tsotsi and A Reasonable Man are Gavin Hood's films.  I saw them when they first came out, A Reasonable Man a few years before Tsotsi, and seeing them again recently (March 2008) on television prompted this review.  The two films deal with a similar theme, a boy/young man and his crime against a baby.  In A Reasonable Man, Sipho, a young herdboy, kills a toddler in the mistaken belief that the baby that he cannot see under the blanket is a tikolosh, an evil spirit.  In Tsotsi, a young hoodlum inadvertently abducts a tiny baby.  In both films, the story unfolds around the boy/young man and the baby.

In A Reasonable Man, Sipho is put on trial for splitting open a baby's head with an axe. Later it is discovered that the baby's genitals have been removed. Because all of this has happened in an African village, the prosecution jumps to the conclusion that this is a muti murder and, therefore, savage and inhuman. Sipho, who does not deny the murder and feels justified in having committed the deed, is distressed, angry and cannot understand his mother's horror and rejection of him. The boy's extraordinary reaction disturbs the young lawyer who happened to be present when the crime was discovered.  As he cannot believe that Sipho is capable of wilful murder, he undertakes to defend him and goes back to the village to gather evidence.  He sees the chief and visits a sangoma. By immersing himself in the life and beliefs of the villagers, he is able to put the deed back into its context and discovers that Sipho killed what he thought was a tikolosh (an evil spirit) under a blanket.  Had he seen the baby, he never would have struck. 

In abstracting the killing from its context, the prosecution changed its nature and turned it into a wilful, heinous crime, a muti murder. The assumption that this is a muti murder is facile, simplifies the case for the prosecution, turns it into a clear-cut case that contravenes the fundamental law, ‘Thou shalt not kill' and is, therefore, clearly punishable.  But ‘Thou shalt not kill' is only absolute in the abstract.  Murder, however, is not abstract; it occurs within given circumstances and sometimes circumstances that justify killing, such as in cases of self-defence and in war.  When it is discovered that the genitals of the child were removed after death, sometime after the killing, the lawyer is able to prove that this was not a muti murder. But the motive for the killing is still not clear and the court is prepared to accept a plea of temporary insanity.  The lawyer, however, repudiates the notion of insanity.  He argues that it was not a boy temporarily insane who committed a rash murder but rather a reasonable man whose social conditioning prompted him to take reasoned action to protect his village against an evil spirit.  His act was deliberate and in accordance with the beliefs of his community.  The judge, prosecutor and others are then forced to see Sipho as a warrior defending his community. Though the judge accepts that Sipho is not guilty of murder, he cannot overlook the fact that a child's life has been taken. Consequently, he cannot set a precedent on cultural grounds that could lead to abuse.  He finds Sipho guilty of culpable homicide and sentences him to a year in prison.  This finding ignores the point that the lawyer makes that this was the act of a soldier and, therefore, has the sanction of the community.  The judge is unable to extricate this universal principle from its cultural trappings.

When Sipho is released at the end of his year of incarceration, he goes home.  There he must find a way to reconcile with the mother of the baby that he killed in order to be rehabilitated.  The year in prison was simply punishment - a postponement of his rehabilitation and hope for forgiveness.  Sipho must reconcile with the baby's mother in order to heal or, like his lawyer, he will develop ‘a snake' in his inner being that will eat at him as long as it is not exorcised.  

His lawyer, who committed a similar crime to Sipho's, feels a vital connection to the young herdboy.  It is this bond that drives him to discover the real reason for the killing, not only to save his client but also to reconcile himself to the horror of his own deed.  When he was about Sipho's age, he was conscripted and sent to fight on the border in Namibia where he shot at someone hiding in a cupboard in the mistaken belief that he was dealing with an enemy soldier. When the cupboard opened, he discovered that he had killed a little boy.  His remorse was great and, in the flashback, we see him cradling the dead boy in his arms, just as the Zulu mother cradled her baby after Sipho had split its head open.  The lawyer has carried the guilt of his action inside himself for over a decade and when he goes to a sangoma for help in Sipho's case, she first attends to him and his guilt, which she exorcises from his soul.  It is in his interaction with the sangoma that the lawyer gains insight into his own and his client's behaviour. Without this connection to African customs, traditions and beliefs, he would not have understood and would not have succeeded in having his client acquitted of the murder charge. 

The film deals with prejudice at its basic level, the level of ethnocentricity.  It asks of us to look beyond our own cultural context, beyond the customs of our own communities, so that we may see that we have in common the same fundamental beliefs. Different cultural trappings mask this consensus.  When we focus on rites and rituals, which are different, we blind ourselves to the common understanding underlying difference.

In Tsotsi, a young gangster, who hijacks a car, is unaware of the baby in the back seat.  When he discovers it, he takes the baby with him because he identifies with it. He sees in it the neglected, abused child that he once was and to compensate for the lack of care he endured as a child, he makes a crude attempt to nurture the baby.  The film follows his efforts to take care of the baby, and shows him growing in caring and love.  The baby, his alter ego, allows him to find himself.  In doing so, he learns to love and he makes amends for his callous treatment of others.  After a few weeks, he accepts that for the baby's welfare, it needs to be returned to its parents.  He is arrested when he does. And the law, which is intent on punishment, is unable to see that he, through his experience with the baby, has been rehabilitated. The punishment that must follow, therefore, will be just that, punishment.

Tsotsi is rehabilitated through his experience with the baby before his imprisonment; for Sipho rehabilitation begins after imprisonment when he returns home. Both films make us wonder about the adoption of the term ‘Correctional Services' for what was formerly designated ‘Prison,' and clearly accepted as a place of punishment. 

Tsotsi won an Oscar for best foreign film and has been greatly acclaimed.  But I do not believe it can compare in stature with A Reasonable Man.  In A Reasonable Man, Gavin Hood gives us a glimpse into the difficulty of bridging cultural gaps.  He shows the lawyer immersing himself in African customs and through them reaching for justice that is truly humane; he learns to recognise that underlying cultural differences are universal human values.   We struggle to acknowledge that because we are obsessed with difference.  A Reasonable Man, which sets African traditions so powerfully in the midst of Western traditions, reveals to us our common humanity.