Otelo Burning

DIRECTOR: Sara Blecher

CAST: Jafta Mamabolo, Thomas Gumede, Sihle Xaba and Nolwazi Shange


RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes


Surf’s up, but the youth’s confidence in a peaceful society is down. It’s 1988. The shirts are tight, the afros are omnipresent and somewhere, someone is winding up a TDK 90 cassette tape.

This, like most places in South Africa back then, was a scene from any given night in Lamontville, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

It’s also a scene from Sara Blecher’s (who gave us Surfing Soweto) new film, Otelo Burning.

Three boys – Otelo (Mamabolo), New Year (Gumede) and Mandla (Xaba) – from the township popularly known as eLamont, become friends just as the United Democratic Front and the Inkatha Freedom Party’s supporters are waging a war of wills on the township’s streets.

Instead of openly choosing sides in a conflict that BFFs New Year and Otelo are too young and too guarded to concern them- selves with, they decide to learn how to surf. Mandla is the only black boy on the beach, so he teaches them.

Otelo – the more vigilant and harder of the two friends to bring under command – winds up being a master of the waves.

With tyre-necklacings, petrol bombings, snitching and, obviously, the legacy of apartheid as the backdrop, this film explores what it means to be a young man preoccupied with a kind of freedom that doesn’t come at the price of someone else’s life.

Besides the authentic Zulu spoken throughout the film (a sound so sweet to the ear if you understand it), there are quite a few things that make this a good watch. Above all is the stellar cast.

Gumede’s New Year is a wise- beyond-his-years kid who wears Oliver Tambo-like glasses and idolises his militant older brother, who is played by Motlatsi Mafatshe (of When We Were Black and Isidingo fame).

Gumede plays him in a reined- in manner that serves as the balance between two rather volatile characters – his friends Otelo and Mandla.

Mamabolo’s Otelo walks the tightrope of turning from boy to man in a way that doesn’t see him lose himself. He retains the stubbornness that comes with youth and does what his heart tells him to do with no concern for what the consequences may be.

A gold star for the cast.

Even when it’s quite clear he isn’t really riding the wave by the less than plausible, far less poetic (when compared to the long shots) background, Mamabolo seems to be genuinely enjoying playing Otelo. His love interest, who is also a physical embodiment of betrayal, is played by Shange who is definitely one to watch in this industry.

She really was captivating in her scenes and plays the role of Dezi, a girl who refuses to walk in her shebeen-queen mother’s shoes and has a confidence that is just on this side of being naive.

She really does believe in Otelo – even when he tells her she’s as beautiful as Deliwe. If you can remember who Deliwe is, then you can come collect your hi-five from me. Boom.

Otelo Burning has already won quite a number of awards and even spawned a mixtape by Motif Records that has ensured it piques the interest of the young people in South Africa, so it’s almost difficult to call out this movie’s bad bits.

For me, it was the depiction of the people of Lamontville as if they are constantly sweating. As in 24/7. The film-makers are KZN natives so they would know reality better than I do, even though I spent every summer of my childhood there. Not once do I remember anyone looking as if they had smeared dollops of vaseline on themselves from head to toe, whether night or day.

When I say these characters glisten I don’t mean the quality of the acting. It’s like those films you get from other parts of the continent that allude to the idea that the city is so hot, every black person is dripping sweat.

The pace of the film is languid and we really get to know the characters at first and then, quick-sticks, it’s already 1990 and there’s a young Winnie and a youngish Nelson hand in hand when Madiba’s released from prison.

Otelo Burning is a good story, especially if you understand Zulu and don’t need the simplistic subtitles that suck the marrow out of a fat bone that is the script so there are very few things that are really annoying about it.

At it’s core, it’s about young people finding a way to play a game where the odds are stacked against them. After all, as the Zaki Ibrahim song says during a beautiful montage of Otelo underwater: my dreams won’t wait.

If you liked… Sarafina… then you’ll love this