Sublime in its rich ocean scenery, where you will indulge in for most of the film, the majestically photographed Otelo Burning is actually set in the South African province of Lamontville in the late 1980’s, around the time when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
But the refreshingly unconventional and gripping film isn’t a political narrative; that serves as more of a backdrop.
Written by Sara Blecher, James Whyle and The Cast Workshop, and directed by Blecher (Surfing Soweto), Otelo Burning is a coming of age story - based on real life events - about three boys: Otelo Buthelezi (Jafta Mamabolo), his best friend named New Year (Thomas Gumede), and Otelo’s younger brother, Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi).
The boys seek an escape from political violence between the Inkatha dwellers, and the United Democratic Front on different sides of the township, and from their own dysfunctional familial ties. They have been raised to fear water, a symbol which permeates throughout the film. In its opening scene, New Year, a winsome Gumede, narrates a story the boys have been told is real: a snake dwells in the water, waiting to take one under.
Yet, the water also represents a forbidden fruit and the ultimate escape from the political chaos surrounding them; they are further allured by watching their new surfer friend, Mandla Modise, riding the waves or “flying on water.”
Against their father’s wishes, Otelo, his brother Ntwe, and New Year spend time with Mandla at his beach house, where he teaches them the basics of board surfing. Soon enough and progressively getting better at the sport, Otelo and New Year are riding the waves with Mandla.
You will be mesmerized by the top-notch production here and the cinematography. It’s a sight you don’t see often - Black young men surfing. And, if you’ve never paid attention to the skill of surfing, you will now, plus experience all its thrills.
The story begins to switch its focus to Otelo, who begins a courtship with New Year’s sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange), who lives with her abusive, promiscuous mother. Otelo’s father (Kenneth Nkosi), an ill-tempered man quick to backhand Otelo, is relentless in his threats to him to keep a close eye on his younger brother, whose naivete and curiosity are bound to get him into trouble.
Some charming sequences follow as Otelo’s and New Year’s partnership with Mandla deepens. New Year, the trio’s photographer, captures still images of the men’s bonding and surfing, one of the most irresistible aspects of the film.
The boys deliver naturalistic performances; the cast’s chemistry is seamless. Actor Mamabolo portrays Otelo with understated intensity. His character requires a range of emotions, which he tackles affectingly without overacting.
An older white man who witnesses the boys’ potential, invites them to his home to mentor them and watch surfer videos.
Things build up from here on to the film’s tragic climax. The boys begin competitions; Mandla grows envious and resentful of Otelo after the latter outshines him. Without giving too many spoilers away, Otelo is heartwrenchingly betrayed. Mandla does the unimaginable and places Otelo's younger brother in awful danger; Dezi, Otelo’s girlfriend, becomes another instrument to wound Otelo.
We see outbreaks of socio-political war and chaos around them; yet the film’s mood is somberly touching; the filmmaker chose not to play into gratuitous bloody and/or graphic images.
Otelo goes out to seek revenge. And burning with rage, guilt, grief, loss, confusion, and with nowhere to go, goes to taste the thrills and freedom of flying on water one more time.