Shakespeare in South Africa? It’s not the case. Despite the title, jealousy is only one part of the award-winning South African film Otelo Burning. Set in 1988, on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the film deals with many subjects, as acknowledged by the director, Sara Blecher: “What you think when you are watching the film is that you are watching a coming-of-age film. Suddenly it changes and it becomes something totally different.”
The story unfolds as three teenage friends – Otelo, New Year, and Mandla – look for an escape through a time of turmoil in the township of Lamontville. They have to face the grim reality of apartheid South Africa: the events take place in the same months in which violence is increasing between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Zulu Freedom party supporters.
Mandla – already skilled in surfing – will take the others into a world that was previously closed to black people. Soon, everyone recognizes that Otelo is truly gifted on the water, a future surfing star. An older white man, Kurt Struely, approaches the boys, certain of their potential. With practice, Otelo soon outshines his friend, Mandla, who becomes increasingly resentful when Dezi, New Year’s younger sister, falls in love with Otelo.
Driven by jealousy, Mandla betrays his friends and, in exchange for money, he denounces Otelo’s brother, Ntwe, as a suspected informer for the apartheid security police. When Otelo discovers the truth, he faces a choice between fame as a surfer (which also means money) and justice for Ntwe. Eventually, on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release, he will make a key decision for his life.
The historical events of South Africa provide a background for the teenagers’ story, with a common element, the search for freedom. Surfing itself is also a metaphor for freedom: “That’s what people mean when they talk about freedom?” asks Otelo when he sees Mandla riding the waves. Sara Blecher explained: “I don’t think people would put young black kids in 1990 together with surfing.” That’s what makes the film “so striking, so unique, and so local,” she added.
Despite its symbolic meaning, the film does not lack realism. Only the third film ever to be entirely shot in Zulu – a challenge for the English language director – Otelo Burning is loosely based on a story about a real group of swimmers in Lamontville. More importantly, it is “a Lamontville story, told by the people of Lamontville” as Ms. Blecher said. “The film was in development for seven years” and “came out as an extensive workshop process conducted with a group of kids in Lamontville, near Durban,” she told journalists. This process, she added “started in 2004 when the directors and producers managed to bring together a group of ex-gangsters, builders, lifeguards, and swimmers – all residents of the township – who had been witnesses or participants in the story upon which the film is based”.
Two years later, the same group of people took part in acting workshops, in order to learn acting skills. This proved a success, because, as the director recalls “many participants were chosen for lead roles in a local drama series.” Nevertheless, this is not the only way in which they took part in the filmmaking: two of them even persuaded Sara Blecher to add a scene to the film. The deep involvement in the historical events the film refers to was seen by Sihile Xaba – the actor who played Mandla – both as a risk and an opportunity: “In shooting the film my worst fear was that it would open up old wounds,” said the young man in an interview. He was 9 years old when the clashes described in Otelo Burning took place. Thinking about it was sad – how those people died because they believed they did the right thing. I wish young people could appreciate how South Africa has changed,” he also said.
Otelo Burning was in some way a debut not only for some actors, but also for Sara Blecher herself. She had previously directed drama series and documentaries, but this was her first feature film, which has already been screened in film festivals around the world, including Seattle (USA), Busan (South Korea), Dubai, and the London International film Festival. In Africa, the film was chosen for the opening night of the Durban Film Festival and it won two out of 13 nominations at the 2012 African Movie Awards. (D. M.)