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Behind the Lens: Otelo Burning

Published: 1 year ago

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Words Kiran Yoliswa

South African film director Sara Blecher shares the history behind her township tale Otelo Burning...

Otelo Burning is a film about what happens when you get freedom.It’s a film about greed, jealousy and betrayal. I think the problem with freedom is it turns freedom fighters into greedy fat cats. Getting freedom isn’t the revolution, it’s once you have that freedom that the fight really begins. Our president just spent R320million of taxpayer’s money on his personal house, over and above the two official presidential houses he uses. In a country where many people can barely afford to eat, where the statistics for the number of people living and dying from Aids are among the highest in the world, I think it would be fair to say spending this amount of money on your own house is slightly problematic. Twenty years after apartheid I still feel sad for my country.

I was born in Johannesburg, returning to Durban just after graduating from NYU in the late 1980s. As a young idealistic student I got pretty embroiled in the township violence that was going on at the time so making a film about that period felt like a natural progression.I don’t surf sadly but I do body board. Experiencing the thrill of riding down the face of a wave, I can’t really think of a better metaphor to talk about freedom.

I read somewhere that after Blue Crush was released suddenly all around the world millions of women started surfing. The film made them understand that this was possible. I’ve always hoped Otelo Burning would have an affect like that on black surfers. Millions of black people live along the coastline of South Africa, many of them are starved for recreation yet there’s this huge inviting ocean. Both Otelo Burning and my documentary Surfing Soweto are young-black-male-coming-of-age stories so it took a huge amount of listening and learning.Making any film authentically is hard, it takes a huge amount of work.

I love all the actors in this film. They’re all part of a new generation of young South Africans who are liberated from the baggage of apartheid. They are Afropolitans, the world is their oyster and they are keen to explore it.  Well, maybe except for Sihle. Sihle’s day job is a lifeguard on Durban beach. Much of the story of Otelo Burning is actually based on his life. I think for Sihle, surfing and the ocean are simply in his blood and I can’t see him ever leaving Durban for too long.

Born: Johannesburg 

Studied: Film at NYU

Lives: In Johannesburg with my husband and three children.

Career highlight: Opening the Durban Film Festival in 2011 with Otelo Burning. I sat in an audience of over 400 people and watched it play on a huge screen. It was a highlight to feel the entire audience hold their breath, with their eyes glued to the screen. That was an aspiration I’ve had ever since I was a child.

Next project: A coming-of-age film. But this one is about a young girl. It’scalled Andani & The Mechanic.

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