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Ambitions clash against a violent backdrop in Sara Blecher‘s Otelo Burning. But while its late ’80s South Africa setting might suggest obvious ways to invoke Shakespeare’s Othello, the insidious jealousy here isn’t primarily about lust or military glory — it’s over surfing. Though sorting through the way Blecher’s tale does and doesn’t line up with Shakespeare’s proves distracting in the end, the allusions may draw deserved arthouse attention to a finely acted film that can stand on its own.
Charismatic if sometimes inarticulate, Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo) is one of a trio of black teens who discover surfing, quickly seeing it as a way out of their troubled township. Bespectacled best friend New Year (Thomas Gumede) is the tale’s narrator; brash Mandla (Sihle Xaba) the kid who finagles surfboards from local whites. Mandla and Otelo are both interested in New Year’s sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange), but their main rivalry is on the waves — where both quickly become candidates for stardom in a sport where blacks are a rarity.
If the beach feels like freedom to the boys, home is trouble: Violence between Inkatha and ANC members is spilling into residential areas, threatening to pull the boys and their loved ones into it. The final months of the Apartheid era supply an urgent counterpoint to happy beach scenes, and intrigue surrounding the schemes of local “comrades” to fight the Inkatha leads to a grisly turning point in Otelo’s life.
A cast of young actors is uniformly strong, as is Lance Gewer‘s photography. Blecher’s script (written with James Whyle), though, struggles a bit with the expectations it invites: As we’re wondering whether Otelo will become violent toward Dezi and how his sidekicks might undermine him, a plot is brewing that isn’t tethered to the legendary Moor’s tragic arc.
Production Company: Cinga Productions
Cast: Jafta Mamabolo, Thomas Gumede, Sihle Xaba, Tshepang Mohlomi, Nolwazi Shange
Director-Producer: Sara Blecher
Screenwriters: James Whyle, Sara Blecher
Executive producers: Kevin Fleischer, Zanele Mthembu
Director of photography: Lance Gewer
Production designer: Anita Van Hemert
Music: Alan Lazar
Costume designer: Ruy Filipe
Editor: Megan Gill
No rating, 96 minutes
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