Set at the height of the fight against apartheid along side the battle between Inkatha and ANC in 1989 South Africa is Otelo Burning. The story follows three township kids who take up surfing inhabiting beaches with signs posted Whites Only during off peak times.
Sixteen year old Otelo ( Jafta Mamabolo) spends most of his time hanging out with his best friend New Year (Thomas Gumede). New Year's mom has a licence to run a bar in her home where a lot of the neighbourhood spend their off hours.
Another popular spot in Lamontville is the local pool. One of the locals Mandla (Sihle Xaba) looses out to Otelo for the attention of New Year's sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange) but still invites the boys to a beach house where his mother works as a maid to try surfing. Otelo and New Year take to the sport right away and the three begin to spend most of their time together at the beach.
A local experienced surfer sees the trio and quickly notices that they have lots of natural talent. He begins to work with and encourages them to enter Regionals and feels that they have the talent to make Nationals perhaps even becoming professional surfers with all the benefits of world travel including room service. They are fascinated by the concept of room service as they don't really know what it is exactly.
Otelo is very close to his younger brother Ntwe. He is 11 and very curious which often gets him in trouble. Otelo father is a hard working labourer raising two boys on his own and has a regular dream that Nwte will die near water before his 13th birthday. Therefore he does not want Nwte to go in the water as he is convinced that there is a large snake in the sea. Nor does not want Nwte to take any chances or do anything remotely dangerous until he turns 13. Thus whenever Otelo and New Year are out with Nwte and come home late Otelo has to always explain the situation to his father.
Director Sara Blecher tells a tale about two best friends. Their relationship with a new found friend who introduced them to a sporting obsession plus a relationship between brothers and their father. Another main storyline is the ever growing jealousy of Mandla over Dezi and as he comes to realize that Otelo is also a better surfer.
The cinematography by Lance Gower is wonderful featuring the rich water blues during the surfing scenes, blue green half pipes and white to almost clear droplets of the spray of the waves. The bright blue of the sky contrasts the sharp brown of beach vibrantly on the screen. The surf scenes are also backed by a bright yellow orange glowing sun surrounded by a darker orange background that fills out the frame to where the sea hits the horizon. One of the brilliant shot sequences shows Otelo and New Year returning from a surfing outing along the site of a recent battle between Inkata and the ANC. The fires are still burning on either side of the roadway smoke bellowing upward as the boys march down the street followed by a government patrol tank.
Otelo sees surfing as freedom from his small town which is agonizingly close to the Durban beaches. It's escape from the battles between the waring factions enveloping him and the huge responsibility placed on him by his father fuelled by fear. Otelo sees the birds flying just above the waves and believes he can do the same on his surfboard.
Casting Director Meshack Mavuso achieved varying degrees of success with his choices for the film. Thomas Gumede is good as New Year the observer of the action and photographer of the groups surfing exploits. Nolwazi Shange is solid as his sister Desi. Kurt Struely is perfectly cast as the seasoned surf bum that guides and cultivates the troops talent. On the other hand Jafta Mamabolo as the film's title character lacked emotion in key moments of the film and Sihle Xaba as Mandela telegraphed the nature of his character from the outset thus robbing the viewer of some peaks in the story as the film progressed.
Belcher presents an alluring film set in a volatile period in South Africa's history. The story has some very good elements but is not without it's flaws. It is beautifully shot and the surfing scenes are superbly done but as a narrative it falls a bit short.
** 1/2 out of 4
Otelo Burning | Sara Belcher | South Africa | 2011| 96 Minutes.
Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.