Film Review: Otelo Burning

As buoyant as the waves its heroes surf on, <i>Otelo Burning</i> uses water as metaphor for freedom for its black South African teens in 1988; the struggles against apartheid initially seem secondary but of course aren&#8217;t.

Add Otelo Burning, directed by Sara Blecher, to the canon of moving films about apartheid, though the main characters start as “just kids” more interested in swimming than guns. Seen from the angle of black South African teenage boys, it presents political movements as they are for most of us as we live through them; sometimes only in retrospect do you realize the importance of what seems to be going on in the margins.

There are of course as many ways to cinematically treat history as there are filmmakers: just two are the biographical approach, as in Cry Freedom with Denzel Washington as the martyred freedom leader Steve Biko (1987), or the impassioned observer, like In My Country (2005), with Juliette Binoche as a white Afrikaner conscience-stricken poet recording the horrors tearing apart her beloved homeland.

Otelo Burning starts local, as Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo), his kid brother, Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi) and his best friend, New Year (Thomas Gumede), hang out at a local pool, despite a warning from Otelo's dad, who had a premonitory dream about water and his younger son. But it’s on the sparklingly clean beaches that Otelo and New Year are introduced to the seduction of riding waves, watching the accomplished Mandla (Sihle Xaba), and encouraged by a local white passerby—and eventual sponsor—who happens to speak Zulu, and who turns them on to the fact that real money can be made in surfing.

Otelo, a natural, eventually bests Mandla and everyone else, winning a local competition to the surprise of all watching the formerly all-white sporting event; in one of the few false notes of the film, there is the obligatory check-awarding scene. Even a sweet romance between Dezi (Nolwazi Shange) and Otelo is filled with dreams about getting away from their poor, rundown town of Lamontville, a train ride away from the gorgeous coast. Images of waves and surfing by cinematographer Lance Gewer make it seem salt water is just a whiff away.

Yet the most ingratiating quality of Otelo Burning is that it is not portentous; its comments about racism and poverty are sly and subtle. Imagining what it might be like to strike it rich, one kid believes room service may be “when you call up and whites bring you whatever you want to eat.” “Even a sheep’s head?” is the hopeful inquiry. “No, whites don’t eat sheep’s heads.” When the guys are glared at by white beach-goers (and shortly after we get a brief shot of a sign declaring the beach is for whites only), they laugh it off and pretend to be doing a tribal dance. Eventually, outside events do impinge on their personal lives, via local warring gangs, a heated-up political atmosphere, and a private rivalry. “Burn” becomes more than a surfing term.

Director Blecher, self-described as part New Yorker, part South African, is a white woman, as is this reviewer. It’s with amazement when you realize, at the movie’s end, that imperceptibly, bit by bit, you have been totally identifying with the point of view of another race, sex, nationality and class. That’s a big thing for a little movie.