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Wrong side of the tracks

Set in South Africa, Tsotsi charts the rise and fall of a leader of a street gang and prompts some useful class discussion, as Jerome Monahan reports

A group of young men are gambling in a township shack. A close-up slow motion shot catches the dice as they roll in the air. The sequence, as well as establishing the lack of education of the two players (it emerges that neither can count), underlines the importance of chance in what follows.

Tsotsi - the multi-award winning, Oscar-nominated film by director Gavin Hood opening next week in the UK - is highly preoccupied with the fickleness of fortune and how in modern South Africa so much for so many, day-by-day, still hangs by a thread - for both rich and poor.

Tsotsi is the leader of a minor-league gang which specialises in street robbery but is about to graduate to murder. He and his three-man crew are the creatures of nightmare - young men gone feral, whose predatory habits are captured in an early scene in Johannesburg's main railway station, where they scan the crowds for likely victims. With their cold eyes and needle-sharp daggers, they are a latter-day embodiment of Nemesis, bringing chaos and death down on the unsuspecting.

Of course, they too are victims of circumstance. And this is where the strength of the film lies - not least for teachers of RE and citizenship.

It makes the uncovering of Tsotsi's past and the arbitrary forces that have shaped him far more compelling than the police investigation that starts to catch up on him - the net inexorably closing in, when, on a lone crime spree one evening, he decides to keep the baby he finds on the back seat of the car he has stolen. It is an action that immediately draws attention to him, alienating him from his gang, but it also forces him to reach out for help to a young mother, Miriam, when his efforts at feeding the baby with condensed milk prove grimly inadequate.

Charting these and the other consequences that flow from his decision to keep the baby is one of the exercises in the Film Education web-resource that has been created to support the film's use in schools.

The baby brings Tsotsi's long-repressed memories of his own past to the fore - a childhood blighted by his mother's illness and death (from Aids) and his father's drunken brutality - a time when he was still "David", unencumbered by the name "Tsotsi": the township dialect sobriquet meaning "a young thug".

It is the start of a journey that sees Tsotsi switch from imposing himself on others with fists and guns to requesting help, as well as understanding the simple things from which people derive dignity and pleasure, and even shifting from blank-faced defiance to a fleeting moment of pleasure when he allows himself to smile.

This may suggest the film is both worthy and sentimental. It is neither.

Its moral dimension is contained within a gripping narrative, beautifully photographed and rendered both authentic and vital by the characters' use of Isicamtho (a dialect derived from a mix of Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho) and the pulsating Kwaito music soundtrack.

As well as being a prompt for fascinating classroom moral and current affairs discussion, Tsotsi also has potential in geography, pointing out the difference between the South Africa of the tourist brochures and the life led by its poor in the townships and its wealthier citizens sheltering behind security gates and "armed response" notices in the suburbs. It also contains important generic lessons about the contingency of childhood in poorer countries.

As Gavin Hood has said in interviews, the world is filled with Tsotsis growing up with murderous anger in their hearts. In one telling scene, Tsotsi becomes infuriated by the baby's crying. "I'll show you a home,"

says Tsotsi, putting the baby into a shopping bag and setting off to visit the wasteland where he once sought refuge as a street orphan - sheltering in one of a set of piled-up forgotten concrete drainage ditch sections. He finds the place is still populated by a crowd of abandoned children, some barely out of nappies. The biggest of them walks out to challenge him but recoils when Tsotsi offers him the baby. "Is his mother dead?" asks another smaller boy. Yet again, Tsotsi is confronted by others who, despite their misery have retained a sense of right and wrong, highlighting the inadequacy of his claim to the child and the enormity of his crimes.

The Film Education resource also includes sections on the promotion of the film, and culminates in a summative exercise in which students are invited to write a review. As Film Education director Ian Wall points out, gaining an understanding of the way in which media products are "sold" and convey meaning is also an intrinsic citizenship skill.

The parallel official Tsotsi website is a rich source of information including a fascinating documentary about the lives of Josias and "the Twins" and the different paths they are following as they grow up in Tslaiwelo squatter camp, six miles from central Johannesburg.

* Tsotsi opens on March 17 (certificate 15)

* Tsotsi (Film Education)

* Tsotsi official Site www.tsotsi.comindex.php?m1=film

* The TES, in partnership with Film Education, is hosting free schools'

screenings of Tsotsi around the country on Thursday, March 16 at 10am at the following locations: Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Newcastle, Nottingham,Sheffield.

Teachers can book class tickets directly through the free booking line Tel: 020 7851 94649463

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