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Otelo Burning is an absorbing piece of cinema
Otelo Burning, a film that chronicles unprecedented black surfers’ odyssey from their neighbourhood swimming pool into the open waters of the ocean, is finally getting its shine. Set in the little township of Lamontville, the film has gained much hype since I first learnt about its showcase at the Durban International Film Festival last year.
It has since traveled the world, being screened in different film festivals across the globe. Moreover, Otelo Burning has garnered a few prizes along the way, including the recent accolades such as International Audience Award at the CineramaBC International Film Festival held in Brazil; as well as the big victory at last weekend’s African Movie Awards in Nigeria, where it collected two gongs.
There was a media screening of Otelo Burning a few months ago, but I couldn’t attend because I was in Durban at the time. Luckily, I got another chance to watch the film at another advanced screening in Rosebank last week.
Otelo Burning is set at the height of the apartheid regime in the late 80‘s. At the time it was unheard of for black people to pursue and excel in the sport code of surfing. Narrated by Thomas Gumede, who also plays New Year, the film tells a story about his friendship with Otelo (played by Jafta Mamabolo). The two friends, together with Otelo‘s younger brother Ntwe, portrayed by Tsepang Mohlomi, develop a love for swimming. Graduating from swimming in the river to their neighbourhood swimming pool, and subsequently the ocean, they travel a journey filled with joy, sadness, despair and upliftment.
The freedom they long for in their social and political standings can only be found when they are surfing the wild and open waters. The question is, will they ever find that sense of comfort in that freedom? Is it really true that “life and death are only temporary. Freedom goes on forever,” as Lucas Black uttered in the film, Crazy In Alabama, which also tackles issues of racial segregation?
As far as the positives in Otelo Burning are concerned, there are numerous points I’d like to explore. Firstly, the opening and closing credits are smart and inventive. The use of name cuttings on polaroid photos was totally refreshing, blending the stories in remarkable and artistic manner.
Secondly, the performances were sterling. From Thomas Gumede, who did an exceptional job in balancing his gentle and strong traits. Jafta Mamabolo was in his element too. Even though he was likeable, his character was laden with flaws, elements he superbly brought into life. Each nuance in his character was vividly sirred with his flair of emotional display.
Other actors that that stood out include Nolwazi Shange, whose calm nature provided a much needed neutrality to the characters; as well as Tsepang Mohlomi, a young actor who keeps impressing me since he stole the show on Izulu Lami (My Secret Sky) a few years ago. Sihle Xaba on the other hand, whom by the way is reunited here with Thomas after appearing together on another KZN-set production, the TV series Bay Of Plenty, excelled more in the technical aspects of his character, what with him being a real professional surfer.
To round off the highlights, in terms of incredible performances, are Kenny Nkosi, playing Otelo‘s single father; Hamilton Dlamini, whose complex character is integral in the substance of the film; Motlatsi Mafatshe, refreshing in a rather evil role; and Harriet Manamela as a conflicted shebeen queen.
Amongst some of the aspects of the film I liked is the use of the snake metaphor. It’s a perfect way to encapsulate life’s ambivalent nature in the story. A snake is part of our existence as the living species, but also can be dangerous and detrimental to our very own quiddity.
Now, I do have some minor issues with Otelo Burning. To begin with, there are some goofs that mess up with the continuity of the film. In the 1980‘s, Metrorail (or Spoornet at the time), didn’t have the yellow and green trains, but the brown and grey ones. Therefore, it got to me every time a train was shown riding on the railway. I know it may have been difficult to get such trains to be in motion on the tracks. Rather, they could have used stationary trains any where they needed a train as a prop.
Another element I was not happy with was the news on the radio being delivered in English. I don’t believe that any black household in that part of Durban was listening to an English radio station every day. They could have used a Zulu announcer and translated into English on the subtitles. After all, it was a Zulu film, with English subtitles.
Morover, the shebeen queen character could have been made more meatier. Mostly, shebeen queens are the stern, no-nonsense kind of business owners. The development for that character could have been much better. Also, I felt they could have done more to authenticate the part of the story about the conflicts between the IFP and the ANC in the province. It is no secret that the apartheid government stirred the inter-political riots by fueling the IFP.
Overall, Otelo Burning is a beautiful piece of cinema. It’s rich in its appeal, and riveting in its delivery. The performances are world class; the story authentic and original. The dialogue is captivating, with a cogent injection of humour. Comprehensively, it is one of the best films to come out of South Africa. Sarah Blecher did a sterling job in directing such a wholesome, quality production.
The film opens at cinemas countrywide on 11 May 2012. Be sure to check it out. It’s entertaining, through-provoking, moving and inspiring. To whet your appetite, check out the trailer below.