Surfing serves as the unlikely focal point of “Otelo Burning,” a skillfully layered exploration of life in a South African township during the last years of apartheid. Profoundly political, though not in any expected ways, Sara Blecher’s coming-of-age drama envisions apartheid less as an exterior system that denies specific rights than as something that stifles from within. For the three teenage boys at the film’s heart, surfing explodes the boundaries of the imaginable, offering a taste of freedom not without a hidden price. Bowing Nov. 9 in Gotham, this revelatory “Othello”-tinged tale merits wider distribution.
In many ways, the pic expands on the situation explored in Ted Wood’s documentary “White Wash,” which traced the disconnection felt by South African blacks banned from beaches and all aquatic pursuits. Here, Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo), his kid brother, Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi), and his best friend, New Year (Thomas Gumede), hang out at a local pool, despite a warning from Otelo’s dad, who had a prophetic dream prohibiting Ntwe from going into the water.
At poolside, Otelo and New Year meet the worldlier Mandla (Sihle Xaba), who soon introduces them to surfing. Initially uninterested, the boys quickly become addicted to the liberating sensation of riding the waves. New Year, who narrates the film in voiceover, settles comfortably into the role of observer; he becomes enamored of photography, taking snapshots that accompany his running account. Otelo, a natural surfer, rapidly outstrips the more experienced, better-equipped Mandla, winning a local competition to the bewildered shock of the participants and spectators of this hitherto all-white sporting event.
Blecher shows blacks and whites coexisting as if on different planets, with little understanding or curiosity about each other’s lifestyles. Violent conflict is reserved for clashes among rival black political factions, their destructive actions encouraged by the white police. This microcosm of the nationwide unrest sweeping South Africa at the decline of white rule also affords a political backdrop for the personal treachery that will tragically impact Otelo.
Until the teens’ discovery of surfing, their fervent thirst for freedom only took the vague shape of getting out of Lamontville. Such escape is also the dream of New Year’s sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange), whose initial attraction to Mandla soon gives way to a deeper affection for Otelo. The innocent romance between Dezi and Otelo, unfolding amid the drunken disorder of a claustrophobic bar run by New Year’s mother (a startling visual contrast with the vastness and beauty of the ocean), adds another element of jealousy to Mandla’s seeming friendship with Otelo.
Thesping is uniformly excellent. Lance Gewer’s lensing, less deliberately picturesque than in “Tsotsi,” counterpoints the townships’ aimless restlessness with the hypnotic power of the waves.