Otelo Burning set my emotions ablaze! I watched a geographically distant past that became present that ended up as a timeless tale despite the specificity of race, place, and the specific historical backdrop.
This often-quiet film explodes with deep passion igniting memories of the South African apartheid and the perils of poverty while following two teenage friends through a dangerous and dramatic life-changing period. This look back at life in Lamontville township in 1989 brings us into very close proximity to the main character Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo), his best friend New Year (Thomas Gumede), his little brother Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi), and Otelo's love interest (New Year's sister) Dezi (Nolwazi Shange). The story oscillates between the stark and at times brutal realities of daily living while exploring the means available for them to fulfill the dream of a better life. As realized by director Sara Blecher (an alumna of NYU Film/TV), Otelo Burning allows us to witness our characters going about their emotional and physical routines, which then become the tapestry of this coming of age story. The dream of a better life (or means of escape) begins to take shape when Otelo discovers surfing, which immediately presents not only physical challenges but metaphorical ones as well.
Things of course get complicated when friendships (both old and new), competition, violence, love, and family obligations mix and begin to spark even larger conflicts. Our characters are thrown into life threatening experiences and must make decisions that either willfully or inadvertently led to tragic consequences. What impresses me most about this film is that as we begin watching, we are most conscious of how race, time, and place are central to the story. However, as we continue past these racial, historical, and geographical anchors, we eventually get beyond all of those things and are left with a story about growing up poor, human nature, and the daily life and death struggles that face many of the worlds neighborhoods.
"The film took seven years to complete." This fact and other important details are available on the site which goes on to note "This is partly due to the time needed to work through the script, but mostly due to the difficulty of finding funding. The SA film industry is booming, thanks largely to successful government support, and Otelo Burning is one of a new generation of South African films." The images are stunning, the acting understated, powerful and elegant, and the story compelling on many levels. I use the term "cultural artifact" often when describing important films and this film now ranks high on my list of such works. The truth is, however, that there are no words to properly describe this intensely authentic human experience. I will most certainly use it in my class Anatomy of Difference because, like I did, my students will learn a great deal from its story, directing style and its mise en scene. It is decidedly South African, Pan-African, but more importantly of global significance. I am impressed and of course proud.
The film opens November 30, 2012 for only two weeks. See it! My congratulations to everyone that made this possible...