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Capturing Truth through Fiction in South Africa

Features
by Sara Blecher
January 22, 2014 3:00 PM
1 Comment
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Still from "Otelo Burning"

The story of how I found my way to film is a funny one. I was living in Paris, and I had no money. I was working as a waitress and a babysitter, pretty much doing everything I could to feed myself. Then I met this guy who invited me to a party. It was by far the coolest party, with the hippest people, I'd been to in all my time in Paris. Someone introduced himself to me as a photographer and asked what I did. I decided right then and there that I would never again be at a party like this and have to say I was a waitress or a babysitter. So I went back to New York and enrolled in NYU film school.

I was born in South Africa. My family immigrated to New York when I was 13. After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, I took a convoluted route that started out at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University with the intention of becoming a foreign correspondent; meandered through Paris trying to find the meaning of life in the "real world"; and crossed the minefields of South Africa in the death throes of Apartheid as a journalist performing special underground political assignments.

After graduating from film school, I returned to South Africa, met and married my husband, had children, eventually set up a film and television production company, and have been making documentaries and television drama series ever since. Last year, I completed my first feature film, Otelo Burning, which has played at over 70 festivals around the world and received critical acclaim and numerous awards.

Feature films were always my goal. My early experience and training making documentaries and television dramas gave me the tools necessary to achieve this. My passion for politics influenced the stories I chose to tell and the landscape against which these personal stories would be expressed. I strongly believe that the more varied experience you have, the deeper your understanding and critical analysis becomes. Some people make features when they're young and without life experience. I don't know how they do this; I couldn't.

Film has the power to take you into other lives and other worlds. That's what I want for my films; I want people to watch Otelo Burning and to feel like they've had a real experience of another world that perhaps they did not know before.

Otelo Burning was in development for over seven years and, much like City of God, came out of an extensive workshop process conducted with people from Lamontville, a township near Durban.

The process started when I was sitting on a Durban beach chatting with a lifeguard, Sihle Xaba. He told me about the township where he grew up, the only coastal township in South Africa that has a swimming pool. He went on to tell me stories about the pool and the people in the township. I saw a film in his stories. I was hooked.

Over the years, that story of the film changed again and again, sometimes in workshops and sometimes just on the page. Seven years later, it became Otelo Burning. And the lifeguard Sihle became the character Mandla. The workshop consisted of ex-gangsters, builders, lifeguards, and swimmers -- all residents of the township who had been witnesses or participants in the story on which the film is based.

Later, we held a second workshop to give these participants basic acting skills so some of them could appear in the film. As a result, the story is infused with realism: it's a story about Lamontville told by the people of Lamontville. People often ask me how much of the film is true, and the answer is that it is based on different people's lives amalgamated into one story.   

For many years, South African filmmakers have felt the need to shape their films to appeal to foreign audiences for financial gain and personal acclaim. This diluted the integrity and power of the narratives and diminished what is unique and compelling about them.

However, recently, following the successes of films like Tsotsi, Beauty, and District Nine, this is changing. A new group of young filmmakers -- many of us who honed our skills on the streets of violence-wracked townships and serial TV programmes -- and several of us who are women, are now telling our own stories in our own way.  This is both more direct and authentic and has allowed for a lot more varied voices to be heard.

In a country like ours, with such a horrific history of violence against women, having female perspectives represented on screen is not a luxury, but  a necessity. For me, this is not so much a matter of the choice of subject matter, but rather the choice of treatment of that subject matter. Otelo Burning is a film about a particularly violent period of South Africa's history, but if one looks carefully at the treatment of that violence, the camera gaze is more often than not on the consequences of that violence rather than the traditional male perspective of the mechanics of the violence. It's a subtle but vital difference.

In Africa we have had to learn to make movies more cheaply than in Europe, America, or Asia. This gives us the freedom to protect the creativity in our work as we are not so dependent on having to recover enormous costs. And we have so many incredible stories here and incredible actors, DOPs, art directors, musicians and so on.

Much like Shakespeare's OthelloOtelo Burning is a story about jealousy, greed and betrayal. But mostly it is a story about freedom and what that means. If there is a message in the film, it is that freedom is very fragile. It is difficult to get but easy to lose. If we don't guard against things like greed and jealousy, which lead to corruption, then we will lose this precious freedom very quickly. It is important to tell stories that look at who we are as a nation now and that rings warning bells about where we are heading in the future. This is why art is such a critical part of democracy. 


Sara Blecher is an award-winning documentary director and producer with numerous projects under her belt, including Bay of Plenty, an award-winning 26-part drama series chronicling the lives of a group of Zulu lifeguards on the Durban beachfront. In 2011, she released Surfing Soweto, a documentary following the lives (and deaths) of a group of so-called "train surfers" in South Africa. Otelo Burning is her first feature film. 

Otelo Burning made its VOD premiere on January 14, 2014. The film is also available for pre-order through Sundance Institute’s Now Playing page, as a result of the partnership between Sundance Institute and IFP, which releases several of their alumni films a year through this collaboration. Visit the film's official site here.

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1 Comment

  • almao | January 28, 2014 12:18 PMReply

    "the camera gaze is more often than not on the consequences of that violence rather than the traditional male perspective of the mechanics of the violence". Really? Traditional? With thinking like this then we definitely need more female directors because men are just capturing the one or two angles that typify male cinema. And there will be a male and female cinema in the near future as long as divisive and shallow thinking like this still exists.

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