Mystery of the waves
Otelo Burning is a good example of an emerging genre in South African cinema: that of stories attempting to fit together the personal and the political, to interleaf the smaller private narratives and the grander narrative of a nation struggling for freedom.
The personal story, here, is that of a group of township youths who discover in swimming and surfing a release from the travails and frustrations of their usual lives. Jafta Mamabolo plays the titular Otelo (no reference to Shakespeare or Verdi) and his sidekicks are New Year (Thomas Gumede) and Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi). Inducting this trio into the mysteries of the waves is the more experienced surfer Mandla, who is played by Sihle Xaba — a fine performance, and the story itself is in part based on Xaba’s own life history, but Mandla is supposed to be Zulu and Xaba doesn’t look even slightly Zulu (those cheekbones, those flaring nostrils, that Eastern Cape tint to the skin ...).
The larger political story into which this narrative is slotted (or is it the other way around?) is that of the troubled time immediately before the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.
That moment of triumphant hope is one moment to which all South Africans, or at least most South Africans, can look and feel good, hence its usefulness as a climatic aspect of the movie.
It acts as the redemptive moment after the suffering and violence of the increased repression, resistance and internecine conflict of the late 1980s. Such a frame must ignore or repress what came after 1990 — the violence that continued at least until 1994, for instance, let alone what has happened in the body politic over the next 22 years. Thus the invocation of Mandela’s release in Otelo Burning feels like nostalgia for a moment of hope, and it pulls one back in time rather than forward into the story, for this teleology is retrospective.
It’s the personal story in the movie that engages and moves, for the tale of Otelo and his friends (including Matthew Oates as a Zulu-speaking whitey) is done with sensitivity and style. The actors produce characterisations of seemingly effortless naturalness, and when we’re up close with these people and are observing their interactions they are very present to us as viewers. This is the cherishable heart of Otelo Burning.
It is complemented, too, by at least one moment that very effectively jars one into a recognition of the felt reality of apartheid (white person arrives at bungalow; I’ll say no more) for those it disinherited and oppressed. It’s a scene that, in terms of a movie storyline, works more powerfully to indicate the meaning of the bigger social, historical and political picture than do those unfortunately over-familiar images of Madiba walking free. And how long ago that seems.