One could assume that nobody in a windowless office was ever caught basking in the fluorescent light, breathing in the recycled air, and asking “is this what freedom feels like?” But can an assumption like that even be made for such a subjective emotion? How does one even begin to describe the feeling of freedom, let alone attempt to capture its essence on film?

Set against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, filmmaker Sara Blecher takes on this gargantuan task in her debut feature film Otelo Burning, adeptly using the fluidity and grace of surfing the waters of the South African coast as the ultimate metaphor. The former NYU student and co-founder of CINGA productions, a South African based film and television production company, wisely takes care to keep a steady equilibrium between both the good and the bad by making it clear that freedom will always come at a cost.

Based on true events, Otelo Burning unfolds in the township of Lamontville, where political tension between the Inkatha hostel dwellers and the United Democratic Front erupts into violence in the streets.

But the violence is distant rumbling to 16-year-old Otelo Buthelezi (Jafta Mamabolo) and his friend New Year (Thomas Gumede), who have taken up surfing with another boy in town, Mandla (Sihle Xaba). Otelo discovers his talent with the waves, and soon the tension in his hometown is all but forgotten, and along with it, the responsibility of taking care of his little brother and the ire of his strict father. Otelo leaves his problems on the shore as he flits through the water, mastering his passion for surfing while shedding his worries. In their solid, thoughtful performances, the young cast delivers in this coming of age story, exploring the different facets of friendship including rivalry, jealousy, love and betrayal with convincing earnestness.

The film was shot in the same town where the events took place and much of the stories were gleaned from the townspeople themselves, who never before had an outlet to deal with the violence that had exploded in the streets.

“I like the place where documentary and fiction meets,” Blecher says about her adaptation of the events in an interview with GALO. “I like that space where it’s sometimes the things that happen in real life that are so fantastic they are beyond what a person could ever make up.”

Though the violence and tension that occurred are a part of the film, they are by no means the centerpiece of Otelo Burning. The numerous surfing sequences are the real scene-stealers, with the actors weaving in and out of the blue effortlessly, pulling the audience in to experience the rush of freedom on the water vicariously.

In the following interview with GALO, Blecher, a winner of the CNN’s African Journalist of the Year award in 2003, elaborates about her experience working on Otelo Burning, its impact on South African youth, and its place in the discourse about the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

GALO: You found out about this story through a lifeguard you met at a beach. Was the lifeguard one of the boys featured in the film or just someone in the know, and can you describe that conversation?

Sara Blecher: [The lifeguard] is one of the boys, he is the guy who plays Mandla at the end. The story is really his story. Sihle (Sihle Xaba) is a lifeguard on the Durban beachfront. I was visiting the beachfront quite a few years after apartheid had ended, and it had been quite a few years since I’d visited. I was struck by how completely changed the beachfront was. Under apartheid it was completely white, and when I was there, it was completely black. The people on the beach were black, the lifeguards were black — everyone was black. The thing that struck me so much was that the color of the people was different but the scene on the beach was exactly the same. It was a pretty girl hanging out next to the lifeguards and the lifeguards chatting up the pretty girl, and it was sort of the same scene.

I started chatting to Sihle and he started telling me the story about where he’d grown up in Lamontville, and I thought this was an amazing story, this story needs to be told. And then we, Sihle and I, together with a few other people, organized some workshops in the township where people came and told stories about that time, about that period in the township and, ultimately, that became the movie.

GALO: You had writing workshops to glean the stories from the townspeople. Can you go into detail about that process and how they feel about the incident as well as the way the film represented it?

SB: It’s kind of amazing because a lot of the scenes we shot were in the places where they really happened. So, you know the big attack with the army van through the township? We shot that in exactly the place where that attack took place and many of the extras are just people who live there.

I was chatting with some of them during the break and they were saying it was so cathartic to play out the scene here. Of course, it’s a funny thing about that period of South Africa’s history, but because it’s a complicated period — it was black on black violence, not white on black apartheid — it kind of never really gets spoken about, that part of the history. The people who lived through it and suffered through it haven’t really processed it in a way. I think that the making of the film for many people, definitely for Sihle, was a massive catharsis. It was a way of dealing with this whole period of their lives because history forgot it.

GALO: Was it your intention from the beginning to keep the release of Nelson Mandela and the brunt of politics in the background of the story — and in what ways does his release frame the conclusion of Otelo’s story?

SB: The framing of history in the background is completely conscious. I didn’t want to tell a story about the history of the struggle of South Africa. I wanted to tell a story of the ordinary lives of the ordinary people during that history. In a way, Mandela’s release frames the film because the film is about freedom. Historically, I wanted to set the film in terms of the day the country got freedom. Just like the boys are on the cusp of adulthood and freedom, in a way, so is the country.

For me, really, the film is a metaphor for what happens when you get freedom. It’s a metaphor for the fact that freedom is great but freedom also comes with the freedom to be human, and being human is filled with lots of good things and lots of bad things, things like greed and jealousy. When a country gets freedom and it doesn’t guard against those bad things, then you risk losing that freedom, as hard won as it is. So framing the film historically in that time period was critical for me.

(Interview continued on next page)