2006 proved to be an outstanding year for South African cinema, with films with strong musical themes or connections performing especially well. Featured MOFFOM film A Lion’s Trail was awarded an Emmy in the News and Documentary category, and perhaps the most international attention was raised by the astonishing success of the feature film Tsotsi, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
A large measure of this success can be traced to the film’s innovative use of South African township music and street culture to help build the atmosphere and mood of the film. Central to this aspect of the film is its supporting actor, Zola, a leading star of the local kwaito scene – a form based around elements of the beats and production values of house music, linear rapping and indigenous African elements. Aside from acting, Zola is a best-selling recording artist for leading Johannesburg independent label Ghetto Ruff, whose founder and director, Lance Stehr (formerly the manager of legendary South African hip-hop crew Prophets of Da City) also served as a music consultant on the high-energy soundtrack of Tsotsi. Several music videos from this project were screened at MOFFOM 2006.
MOFFOM program director Keith Jones recently spoke with Lance Stehr about the music for Tsotsi and forthcoming documentary projects from the Ghetto Ruff stable.
I think we’ve had a couple of directors in South Africa who have been trying to do a kind of Tsotsi movie, especially after the success of various similar things on a smaller scale. Especially after Yizo Yizo, a television program that happened around 2001-2002, and I was involved in that project. Ghetto Ruff handled all the soundtrack work for Yizo Yizo, and Zola was one of the actors who participated. He played a character named Papa Action. Yizo Yizo was a sort of scripted reality-type program about the youth of South Africa growing in the townships after 1994, the street culture but also in the schools, and also about how the youth sort of interacted with the criminals of the time, the tsotsis or street criminals of that era.
It is really interesting to look back on that now because when we did the casting, when we held the casting for Yizo Yizo, I said “Let’s just get all the cast into the studio and try to see which one of them can actually rap. Because from this kind of media exposure across the country, the leverage is so big that if they have talent, they can easily become huge.” Just as an idea, you know. Well, they sent all the actors in and when Zola hit the mic, the first track that he did was “Ghetto Fabulous” and you just knew that this guy was going to hit it, big-time. And when you saw him, the clips of him in that TV series, everyone could see that he was also a brilliant, intuitive kind of actor. That was happening in 2001. At that time, there were a lot of directors trying to get together scripts that depicted life in the townships, what the youth experienced daily, which centered around kwaito in some way.
At that time, kwaito was really starting to become this massive phenomenon, breaking out of the underground and just taking over the music scene. So kwaito was always sort of the driving force in those various projects. Then something happened in the middle of this which was very weird – it took some older guy, a 56 year old, Polish-born Englishman, to actually come to South Africa to start the real process.