VENICE BEACH, Calif. — It’s a cloudy day on artsy Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and the tall, thirtysomething man in jeans and sweats shuffling up the sidewalk could be any one of its laid-back inhabitants. But on closer inspection, Gavin Hood’s eyes look a bit more sleep-deprived than most residents of this beach town. Perhaps it’s because Hood, the South African screenwriter-director of “Tsotsi,” has been on a nonstop tour of international premieres.

“I can’t believe how fast this little film has taken off; I’m just glad that it did,” he says, scratching his head. The whirlwind still confounds Hood, whose film, his third feature, won the Audience Award at the Edinburgh, Los Angeles and Toronto Film Festivals last year and is nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Foreign Film (the movie hits U.S. theaters on Feb. 24). Based on the Athol Fugard novel of the same name, “Tsotsi” depicts six days in the life of a teenage South African gang leader who steals a woman’s car before realizing her baby is in the back seat.

Set in a shantytown bordering Johannesburg, the fast-paced film quickly draws viewers into a seldom-seen world. “Everyone thinks shantytowns are awful, dangerous places, but those who go there are surprised at how often it’s the opposite,” Hood says. “Look, it’s just like Beverly Hills. There are people who will invite you in for tea and many homes that are immaculate. You find some really nice people and some really selfish ones. Personalities are surprisingly similar whether they be rich or poor.”

While the film’s obvious appeal lies in its universal human story, it also has plenty of style. The vibrant colors and clothing jump off the screen, while the music, a kind of South African hip-hop known as Kwaito, keeps the adrenaline pumping. “There’s an incredible world of style within each shantytown,” says Hood, who grew up in and around Johannesburg, attended UCLA film school, returned home to write and direct HIV-education films and now lives here.

“You could stand there for days just taking in all the fashion. Even with little money, these kids know how to dress,” he adds.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The actors, who range from first-timers such as leading man Presley Chweneyagae to Ivy League thespians, mostly wore their own self-styled threads and Converse sneakers. But Hood was careful to create visual contrasts between light and dark, hopeful and desolate.

“The issue for me is not how different people are, but how different their circumstances are,” says Hood. “When you strip away all the differences and get down to the core, everyone just wants to be liked and feel needed.”

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