South African filmmaker Gavin Hood is most well known as the director of the award-winning urban drama Tsotsi, however, few know that he learned the ropes and paid his dues by appearing in B-movies like Curse 3: Blood Sacrifice and American Kickboxer. He also studied law at the University of Witwatersrand before opting to follow his true calling by traveling to the U.S. to study film at UCLA. It was there that he experienced his first big break -- or so he thought -- when a script he'd written called A Reasonable Man won the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award in 1993. The producers who took interest in the story, however, wanted to move the setting from South Africa to America, and soften the script's harsh, culturally divisive content with a happy ending. Hood refused to agree to such changes, agreeing only to make the film on the condition that he direct it himself -- causing interest in the project to vanish as quickly as it had appeared.
Hood traveled back to Johannesburg, where he was commissioned to write and direct a series of educational dramas for television by the South African Department of Health. Tackling issues like the AIDS epidemic for the masses of his newly apartheid-free country was a monumental task for Hood's first professional stint behind the camera, and he accomplished the task deftly, earning an Artes Award (The South African Emmy Award) for his work. A short time later, he directed and produced a short script he'd written called The Storekeeper, about an elderly man who takes the law into his own hands in order to protect his store from robbery -- a decision that ends in tragedy. Hood entered the film into competition at a number of international film festivals, where it was very well received. This earned him the credibility he needed to finally produce A Reasonable Man and in 1999 he did exactly that. The story of a young shepherd who kills a baby whom he believes is possessed by a demon was inspired by an actual 1933 court case that Hood had read about in law school. He cast himself in a supporting role in the film, appearing opposite veteran actor Sir Nigel Hawthorne, and entered it into competition on the festival circuit as he had with The Storekeeper. He met with even more success this time, winning the grand prizes at a number of film festivals and serious praise from many critics.
In 2001, Hood signed on to adapt and direct a film version of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel In Desert and Wilderness, an adventure story about two children in Africa. Though the film had to be made entirely in Polish -- which Hood neither spoke nor had time to learn -- he rose to the challenge, working extensively with a translator to create what would prove to be an award-winning film, and the highest-grossing movie in Poland that year. By 2003, Hood had established himself in the filmmaking community as both a talented and conscientious director. It was around this time that he was approached in by producer Peter Fudakowski about adapting legendary playwright Athol Fugard's only novel, Tsotsi, for the screen. Hood had loved the unflinching tale of desperation, hope, and redemption ever since he'd first read it -- but the rights had always been optioned by other parties. He jumped at the chance to write and direct the story, though he updated the setting from the 1950s to the present, replacing the forces of apartheid with classism, AIDS, and disappointment. The central story remained the same, however: a tough, young gang member to whom stealing and killing are a simple means of survival, murders a woman before realizing her baby is with her. Subjected to a spiritual and ethical transformation, the young man cares for the baby over the course of the next week, as his sense of obligation to the child gradually awakens in him a long-repressed sense of humanity. The film was a complete success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.