Surfing is a heavy-handed metaphor for freedom and a distraction from reality in Sara Blecher’s Otelo Burning. This duality exists in the contrast between the film’s two primary locations: Lamontville, a dilapidated township on the outskirts of Durban, and the South African coastline where magnificent waves allow the film’s young heroes an escape from the political violence and poverty ravishing their community. Each place initially functions as a sanctuary of sorts, one defined by the awe of nature’s splendor and the other by family and friendship. It’s interesting then how, in certain ways, both fail to actually provide the characters, when times get rough, with the safety and solace they so desire.
Leaning heavily on a coming-of-age template, Blecher and co-screenwriter James Whyle developed the story of Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo) and his best friend, New Year (Thomas Gumede), during a multi-year casting workshop with residents who grew up in South African townships. The two lead characters discover surfing from Mandla (Sihle Xaba), a shady acquaintance whose mother works as a maid in a white-owned beach house overlooking the coast. The young men form a triptych of diverging personalities and traits, each a blatant representation of the good and bad in all of us. Otelo is ambitious, New Year is kind and wise, and Mandla is snake-bitten by insecurity. Realism seems to be the filmmaker’s main goal, to capture the youthful innocence of children juxtaposed with the carnage and complexity of apartheid in South Africa in the late 1980s. So why does Otelo Burning feel so utterly formulaic?
The problem lies not in the acting by a cast of talented young performers, but the poorly paced plot, overwrought dialogue, and familiar symbolism that reduces apartheid-era events to a clear-cut timeline of simplistic life-changing experiences. During the opening moments, blurry underwater shots of a shadowy creature inspire New Year’s caustic voiceover monologue, one that tells of a dream Otelo’s grumpy father once had where a mysterious river snake killed his youngest son, Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi), before the age of 13. Here, Blecher reduces the complexities of communal and personal superstition to simplistic foreshadowing.
Otelo Burning grows increasingly tiresome the more it flirts with melodrama, unraveling themes of jealousy, regret, and ambition in broad strokes. Blecher, a first-time director, leaves no room for nuance throughout, relying too heavily on menacing cutaways to express conflict with characters like Mandla, a ripped specimen who not only lusts after Otelo’s girlfriend, Dezi (Nolwazi Shange), but begrudges his friend’s natural talent for riding the waves. All of this pent-up emotion and angst crescendos during a shocking act of violence that simply confirms the film’s early premonitions of death, albeit in a more politically charged and reductive way.
Most frustrating of all is the film’s trite and comfy ending, a ridiculously forced standoff on the beach between Mandla and Otelo that becomes Blecher’s thesis statement against the crippling effects of black-on-black crime. This moment proves that, like its young surfing protagonists, Otelo Burning is perfectly content to glide over the surface of an extremely complex moment in South African history.