‘Otelo Burning’ a searing tale of apartheid’s end

The violent years leading to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison provide the backdrop for a coming of age story about black teenagers looking for their own freedom, on surfboards.


The Zulu-language film “Otelo Burning”, which opens Friday in South Africa, was inspired by true events and filmed in the style of the documentaries which director Sara Blecher made previously.


“It’s a very important story for SA now because it talks about freedom and what you do with freedom. It resonates with what happens now in the country. If you don’t guard against it, you are at risk to loose your freedom”, she said.


“I wanted the audience not to feel like it’s watching movie but it’s real. It’s like a journey, a real experience. You can’t go back in the 1990s so you are going to experience it,” she said.


The appalling violence that pushed South Africa to the brink of civil war is the setting for a searing drama about Otelo Buthelezi and his two friends living in the late 1980s in the Durban township of Lamontville.


The film intimately follows their personal search for freedom, which begins with Otelo discovering a natural talent in the water in a city famed for its surf.


Surfing opens a world of new experiences: a first swim, a first kiss, a first competition, a first victory.


Success for Otelo and his friends comes during the bloodiest violence in South Africa, with Durban especially hit by clashes between Mandela’s African National Congress and the mainly-Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, secretly backed by the white government.


Otelo shares a surname with Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.


“That period was of incredible violence, the country was nearly going into civil war,” Blecher told AFP.


“It was insane, there were just bodies and up to 100 people killed in one day.”


“I lived through that time. With the actors, they are young and things have changed so much. They have the knowledge of being black, but not what happened at that time,” said Blecher.


Blecher, who is white, directed the actors with the help of an interpreter who also checked the dialogue.


“For me, the words are just one part of the scene. The scene is what is really going on, and not necessarily what the actors say,” she said.


She worked for more than seven years on her latest film, including several writing workshops with Lamontville residents.


Aside from the surfing scenes, the film sweeps viewers along with a fluid cinematography that almost caresses the actors.


The style has its roots in Blecher’s documentaries, including 2011’s “Surfing Soweto”, about teenagers who ride on top of trains.


The film is the latest fruit of South Africa’s efforts to promote cinema.


Half of Blecher’s one-million-dollar budget was financed through a government programme launched in 2008, which has helped South Africa make more than 20 films a year.


“My film is indicative of the beginning of a really exciting time in SA,” Blecher said.


“Otelo burning” is only the third movie made entirely in Zulu, after “Izulu Lami” in 2008 and “Yesterday” in 2004. It’s already made a start internationally on the festival circuit, including screenings in Pusan, London and Dubai.


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