Shot in Durban and directed by Sara Blecher (Surfing Soweto), the film is set in 1989, against a backdrop of brewing conflict between two political groups in Lamontville, KwaZulu Natal.
The story starts when 16 year old Otelo Buthelezi, his younger brother Ntwe and his best friend New Year are invited to the beach-house where their new friend’s mother is a domestic worker. They watch Mandla Modise surf and he takes the boys into a world previously closed to them. For the boys, who had a deep-seated fear of the sea, “flying on water” comes to represent freedom, and they are sold. Soon, everyone recognises that Otelo is truly gifted on the water, a surfing star in the making. But jealousy, betrayal and political turbulence impact the lives of these young boys in ways that will change them forever.
Otelo Burning was the opening film for the 32nd Durban International Film Festival. The film is in isiZulu with English subtitles and stars a new generation of exciting, hugely talented young actors including Jafta Mamabolo (Generations), Thomas Gumede (A Place Called Home), and Tshepang Mohlomi (Izulu Lami).
“This is a beautifully made, insightful and entertaining film that captures a turbulent time in the history of South Africa, as well as the tension between success and justice,” says Helen Kuun, CEO of Indigenous Film Distribution, which is the distributor of the film in South Africa.
“The cast is mostly made up of young up-and-coming actors some of whom have come through our workshop process and who are integrally involved in the world of the story,” says director Blecher. “This gives the film an authenticity which ensures the performances are natural and convincing.”
In the lead is Mamabolo who attended the National School of the Arts where he studied speech and drama. He is best known for his role as the young Kunene in the 2008 feature film Jerusalema, and for his role as Thapelo in the third and fourth seasons of the SABC1 youth drama series Soul Buddyz. His early work includes presenting jobs on The Molo Show, YO TV Hot Kids, Craze E, Knock Knock and Xiluva. He has also appeared in The Lighthouse, Red Ribbon on SABC2, Erfsondes and Brothers in Law. Fluent in several South African languages, Mamabolo has worked on radio dramas for Motsweding FM, Lesedi FM, Ukhozi FM and Thobela FM.
In the role of New Year is Thomas Gumede, an actor and comedian best known for his role as Siphiwe in the SABC 1 drama series A Place Called Home. He is also known for being the co-host of the SABC 1 youth talk show The Cypher. He had a starring role in the SABC 1 drama series Bay of Plenty from 2007 to 2008. Other television series he has acted in include Gothia Caper, Mthunzini.com, Backstage, Home Affairs and Soul City. He has performed at numerous live comedy gigs, including the successful 99% Zulu Comedy Show in Durban. He is currently appearing in the new reality show Forever Young which will be on Vuzu, South Africa’s first interactive television channel.
Tshepang Mohlomi plays Ntwe. He is known for his portrayal of the street urchin Chili-Bite in Izulu Lami/My Secret Sky, a role for which he was awarded the Best Supporting Actor prize at the 2010 South African Film & Television Awards (SAFTAs), and the award for best child actor at 2011’s African Academy Awards held in Nigeria. He also appears in At Ellen’s Age (2010).
Sihle Xaba takes on the role of experienced surfer Mandla Modise. In real life Xaba is a South African champion body boarder and a surfer who was the lead actor in the SAFTA award-winning drama series Bay of Plenty. He is also an eThekwini Municipality life-guard. Otelo Burning is to an extent based on Sihle’s own real-life experiences.
Award winning documentary director and producer Sara Blecher executive produced and directed Bay of Plenty, a SAFTA winning 26-part drama series for SABC 1. The series chronicled the lives of a group of Zulu life guards on the Durban beach front. It was largely based on research and work she’d done over the years with the lifeguards and surfers on the Durban beach front. In 2011 she released Surfing Soweto, a documentary following the lives (and deaths) of a group of so-called ‘train surfers’ in South Africa.
“We have used the ocean as a backdrop to create a visually dynamic and emotionally powerful film,” says Blecher. “It’s a young, vibrant, sexy story, and one that’s never been shown on the big screen before. Few people can imagine young black kids surfing in the late 80s. That’s what makes it so striking, so unique and so local.”