Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/14 & 10/18
World premiere: 21 July, 2011, Durban International Film Festival

Dramas about apartheid are rare; South African films are rare; South African dramas about apartheid are thus exceptionally rare. And for that reason alone, I feel guilty about finding so little particular merit in Otelo Burning, a film about two teenagers in that country in 1988 and 1989 finding a creative outlet that both allows them to feel good about their place in the world, and also to prove to the dominant white culture that they're just as capable as anyone at achieving greatness, regardless of skin tone. But not guilty enough to pretend I feel otherwise about a movie so barbarically standard in its concept and execution, so obvious in its thematic arc, setting up situations such that we're able to see, precisely, where the cheering moments and where the sad moments will be half a film down the road; a movie in which there is nothing but its unsentimental look at the waning days of apartheid to make it seem unlike a dozen other inspirational sports movies about socioeconomic underdogs proving that they have what it takes.

The film is structured around a photo album owned by the future version of one of its protagonists, New Year (Thomas Gumede), who reminisces about being 16, when he and his best friend Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo), as well as Otelo's younger brother Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi) first had an opportunity to visit the beach, and there it is that they meet Mandla (Sihle Xaba), another teen who can surf like nobody's business. For the three boys from Lamontville, raised from a young age on stories of how the water is a source of unimaginable dangers, the idea of riding atop the waves like a bird seems to be the most thrilling, liberating game imaginable. And so they have Mandla teach them (Otelo and New Year, anyway), eventually getting so good that they attract the attention of Kurt (Matthew Oats), a white man who believes that, with the right promotion, Mandla might become a champion.

Along with their rise in fame comes a rise in interpersonal conflict, as both Mandla and Otelo have their eyes on New Year's sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange); and there are political conflicts as well, not between the boys themselves (they're relatively apolitical, as teens will be), but in the world around them, which is not only divided between the ruling white minority and the black population about to taste freedom for the first time in half a century, but withing the black community itself, between anti-apartheid rebels and the apartheid security forces. It is this last division that ends up bringing tragedy to the boys' lives, and forces Otelo to make the decision between surfing fame and justice for his people.

Without giving anything away, the division between the personal and political goes the wrong direction: once the tragedy strikes - the lowest point for the characters by far in a movie that is not, by and large, terribly anxious to make things hard on them - there's nowhere else for the film to go, since by this point Otelo's decision has essentially been made for him; but the movie tries to make his personal decision a hugely important story point, to symbolically connect it to the greater historical movements in South Africa at the same time (generally speaking, the attempts to explicitly use the film's story as a metaphor for the political history of South Africa - you got that "surfing is freedom" was a big thudding metaphor, right? - are where it falls the hardest), and this does not have remotely the rich effect that the screenplay by James Whyle and director Sara Blecher (it was also developed through a series of cast workshops) so obviously wants to have.

In fact, the film is at its absolute best only when it as its most frivolous, when it simply hangs behind Otelo, New Year, and Mandla, and observes the casualness of three young men being friends and enjoying the simple things in life. For the actors are all pretty terrific, Mamabolo in particular, and watching them inhabit their roles is significantly more edifying, and tells us considerably more about the life of young people in South Africa, than watching them bent inelegantly into stand-ins for the Great Social Moment in which they find themselves.

The further into the film we go, the more that social moment is brought into focus, always at the expense of the characters. Eventually, the film ceases to have any real depth of feeling at all; just foggy clichés about the unifying power of sports, with Otelo and company themselves having been stripped so badly of anything that ever made them interesting that the movie containing them has, itself, run out of any personality, or any drama, or anything that doesn't boil down to standard-issue bromides. It wants very badly to be an uplifting but politically serious story about the way we can live in the face of corrupt systems, and by doing so rob them of their power; but no matter how much its heart is in the right place, it becomes less and less insightful the more it tries to say, and ultimately can't even succeed on the thin level of an inspirational sports movie.