Working for an organization that helps orphaned and vulnerable children living in the Port Elizabeth area become well-rounded human beings, I was very interested to see the South African movie Otelo Burning. Two weeks ago, there was a screening here in New York City and I jumped at the opportunity to go. I am glad I did. This film, both complex and poignant is directed and produced by Sara Blecher and was released in September of this year after several years in development.
First off, I must say I am no film critic but it is clear to see that this particular piece was beautifully shot. The surfing scenes were shot perfectly in my opinion. In these scenes the filmmakers were able to trigger feelings of both suspense, sadness, pride, competition, fear; so beautiful and at times so overwhelming.
In a simple story about a boy following his dreams to become a professional surfer, the creators were able to throw in the most complex feelings of jealousy, search for freedom, love, passion, betrayal, loss and violence. You have to see the movie to understand what I mean.
Without giving too much away, the story takes place in South Africa at the end of the 80s, at a time when apartheid and the struggle to end it are still in full swing. A teenage boy named Otelo and his friend New Year meet Mandla who becomes their friend and shows them how to surf (using the surf boards of the white family his mother cleans houses for). Surfing! Of all sports! I loved the fact that they were learning a sport that mostly only white boys were learning and competing in, in South Africa at the time. This new-found freedom allows them to experience a completely different world. A world of hope and endless possibilities. It is their escape.
Otelo really becomes a pro at this sport and even wins a surfing competition. Of course this creates jealousy, which then leads to betrayal, something so grave any person would have a hard time accepting it. The movie ends as the audience and Otelo hear of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison live on the radio. In this epic moment, Otelo must make an important decision. What’s most significant about this ending is the very fact that the ocean that once brought him freedom and a sense of hope, now becomes his refuge.
I had the opportunity to meet the person who plays Mandla (Sihle Xaba) after the screening and he is just amazingly talented. As it turns out, the shots you see of him in the movie surfing are real! He is a South African champion body boarder and a surfer!
That said, you should try to see this film if you can. You won’t regret it. And when you do, let me know what you think!