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Culture, Movies

Zulu Surf Films

by Roger Young / 20.07.2011

Tomorrow the 32nd Annual Durban International Film Festival opens. Once again it will be ten days of features, documentaries, business forums and workshops… way too much for any one person to digest. The opening film this year is Sara Becher’s Otelo Burning, a Zulu language surf movie set in Durban in the late 80s set against the backdrop of apartheid and political violence. We talk to Blecher about the process of getting the film made, the difficulty in recreating period surf moves and the importance of the DIFF in local film culture.

Sara: What’s the movie about?

Mahala: OK, let’s start there. I’m sure after raising money and shooting it, you’ve got like a blurb. A one liner. But what was it about before you had to come up with that?

It’s still about the same thing. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about three friends who discover surfing as a way out of the township. So it’s a way out of their shit lives. And then, just when they start making it in the surfing world, they turn on each other. It’s a story about greed and betrayal and jealousy. So the film is basically what happens when you get freedom.

And how did you find the story? Where did it come from?

Literally about seven years ago I met one of the lifeguards on the Durban beachfront and he stated telling me a story about how all the lifeguards on Durban beachfront came from one township. They weren’t from Umlazi, they weren’t from Inanda, they weren’t from Kwa Mashu, they were from Lamontville and the reason was because it was the only township that had a swimming pool that wasn’t destroyed by apartheid and wasn’t destroyed by gangsters. One person had a vision and saw that the pool could get people jobs and he fought, first the gangsters and then the comrades to keep that pool open and it’s through that pool that all the lifeguards learnt to swim. So the best swimmers in Durban, the best Zulu swimmers all learnt to swim in that pool. And out of that pool came a group of guys. One went on to be a national waterpolo player in England, he plays for the national team. And then Sihle. Sihle was the lifeguard I met. He’s like ranked number two in South Africa in bodyboarding. So these totally amazing guys came out of this pool in Lamontville.

And how did you develop it from there?

We ran workshops in that township about seven years ago. Just called people together to start researching the screenplay. And then these builders came along and somewhere in that process we realized we were telling a story about the pool in Lamontville. And then like the biggest gangster in Lamontville showed up at the workshop one day. They sat everyone down and said okay, this is our story and we’re going to tell it to you. And for a day and a half they sat and told us the story of what had really happened, from their point of view and then they said OK, you may carry on now and they left. It was amazing. So, we got the first draft of a script out of it and we went to the NFVF and they said the script has a lot of nice textures and it’s great but it’s all over the place, there’s no story. So we hired a writer who came onboard, James Whyle, and he started from scratch taking all the material that had come out of the workshop. And then we made a decision, essentially, to tell the story of Othello.

Otelo Burning

So the final film is not factual, it’s fiction?

No, it’s based on that true story but it’s very fictionalized. We layered Othello’s story into it so it becomes a story of betrayal and greed. We wanted to make a story about what’s going on in South Africa now, but how do you do that? With a historic story.

So when you say you put Othello on it, a lot of people make Othello about racial conflict. Did you incorporate that aspect of it?

Not really. I mean basically we just used the structure of the story to tell ours. So it’s a story about a guy who is really good at surfing and he’s really making it and his best friend betrays him. So our lead female character’s name is Dezi. Our lead character’s name is Otelo. It’s like a township version of Othello. They say there are seven stories in the world and we needed a structure to put our story around so that’s what we did. It worked out kind of nice. And then ultimately what the film is really about, for me, is what happens when you get freedom. What happens to a country? And normal interests come in and normal human emotions; greed and jealousy and betrayal and all these things mess it up. It’s a tragedy.

You say you met this lifeguard, was that coincidental or do you have an interest in the Durban beachfront specifically?

I love the Durban beachfront. It’s the one place in Durban that mixes everybody. It’s like the subway in New York. It doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone uses the subway. The Durban beachfront is the one place where rich lawyers come to surf and street children go to get food. I mean it’s a resource and everybody goes to get something out of the sea.

It is kind of a model for how other spaces should be used?

That’s not really in the movie but I think Durban has been so successful in so many ways. I know Mike Sutcliffe is just about the most unpopular man in the universe but actually he’s done some incredible things in Durban and one of those successes is the beachfront. No other city has a public space like that. Even if you think of Cape Town and you think of their beautiful boardwalk, it’s rich people.

Sara Blecher

So last year you had Soweto Surfing at the DIFF? How is Soweto Surfing related to Otelo?

They are totally related. Other than they are all about surfing, which for me is such a perfect metaphor for freedom. You stand on a moving train going through a township really fast with 3000 volt of electricity and you’re doing it because you’re free for a moment, and it’s the same thing standing on a wave. I mean surfing to me is a perfect metaphor for freedom. But they’re both about young kids battling to grow up and finding their way in a world that’s changing. Surfing Soweto is about kids growing up in Soweto in 2008 and Otelo Burning is about kids growing up in a township in 1988. And nothing’s changed in terms of how difficult it is to become a man. That battle to become a man when you have no family guiding you and you have nothing showing you how to navigate your way… That’s what both films are about really.

So what is it about the stories you want to tell that brings you back to that metaphor?

Young black men and me?

No, but searching for freedom or dealing with freedom.

For me, I lived in Durban for that period. That hectic political violence. So that’s a film I’ve always wanted to make. I’ve always wanted to tell the story about what happened then, it’s many many years ago and I think young kids don’t know that shit.

So is there a lot of political violence in the film?

The political stuff is a backdrop. We had a screening at Greenside High school which is a public high school and the kids stood up at the end of the screening and said “It’s the first time that I’ve felt like there’s a film about how I would’ve been during apartheid”. So it’s not about the Steve Biko’s or the Mandela’s or the heroes, it’s about ordinary people navigating life. So the political stuff and the violence, it’s a just the backdrop that they have to play out their lives against. There is no point. There’s no political point we are trying to make. That’s not what the film’s about. The film is looking at kids growing up. So the politics in many ways is a backdrop but it’s a backdrop that I think kids don’t know about anymore and I think they find it interesting now.

So how real is this film?

You know, we had some actors but we had a lot of non-actors who act in the thing, it’s all in vernacular. We shot in location, in real places. And my background is documentary so I think what succeeds about the film is that it does blend those two forms. It very much feels gritty and real, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching acting in a film. Which is something I’m very proud of.

With your documentary background, did you have trouble raising funding for a fiction film?

Seven years. I mean I came up with this film seven years ago and we’ve just finished making it.

But was it hard? Did you have to literally convince people?

You know what’s its like making films and getting money. It’s not any easier for me. What happened, to be honest, is that I went to a producers course that the NFVF runs… and I’m no spring chicken, I mean I went to film school at NYU. I’ve got a really solid film background but it was the first time in my life when I went to this course at the NFVF that I actually began to understand that film is business. It is art and you’ve got a lot to say and you need to express yourself but you need someone to pay you what you need or you’re going to spend years and years not being an artist. I want to make the films I want to make. So what I got out of this workshop is that you need to make the film for the audience and you need to budget accordingly.

Otelo Burning

And with screening at the DIFF, has that been like a deadline?

Totally. We were not going to be ready for DIFF and then when they selected us as the opening film and I was like okay we’ll be ready. I wanted to open in Durban. It’s a Durban story, a Durban film. I don’t want it to open at Toronto, or anywhere else in the world.

I think it’s quite interesting that the year before last, the opening film was also a Durban film. Maybe it’s just because DIFF is Durban but it does focus a lot of attention on the fact that there are a lot of film makers and a lot of interesting stuff to be explored in Durban.

Yeah, I think that’s true. I just got back from TARIFA which is this African film festival in Spain and all anyone talks about there is DIFF. Like you have no idea how widely respected that festival is in the world. Last year Surfing Soweto was at DIFF and just on that basis it got invited to eight festivals around the world. I didn’t apply, we were asked to submit. What Peter and Monica Rorvick have done at DIFF, I don’t think they get enough credit and I think they should. It’s the hugest film market in Africa at a time when people are actually interested in African films. You look at black film makers across the whole continent, they only want their films to play at DIFF and somewhere along the line they have experienced some mentorship or support from that festival.

The first DIFF I went to was when I was fifteen and saw Blue Velvet and I was just done. Then I was a filmmaker and that was me.

Yeah, and if there wasn’t DIFF you would never have seen it.

1986? Never.

So back to the film, was it a problem; I mean technically shooting the surfing stuff? In terms of the way surfing has changed.

Part of the story line revolves around our main character pulling off a move that has never been done before. So technically, like, the best surfers in the country hands-down are white. So the very best black surfer in the country, technically, is quite low ranking. On a low budget getting him to pull off a move that’s convincing is extraordinarily challenging. But we worked historically and we tried to find a move that historically would’ve been ahead of it’s time in 1988 and then getting Quinton Tshabalala, our surf double, to do that move was challenge number two, especially because we needed a historically accurate surfboard which is crap. So having him try and surf on a surfboard that is miles worse than anything he would ride now and asking him to do this radical move and to get it on film and on the specific days when we were surfing, was quite a challenge. Mahala’s Andy Davis hooked us up with these guys from Cape Town called Fixer Film who shot the surfing. I think they do the Big Wave stuff; they were wild. We had a call time at like 6 o’clock in the middle of winter, we had to all be there and they would wake up at 4 o’clock so that they could go and fish on the jet-ski on the way to call. They were great. They were really brilliant. And I was just in New York with IFP, Independent Film Producers narrative lab thing and I showed the film and people were like blown away by the surfing and if people there were blown away by the surfing then I think we succeeded. And that was the biggest challenge with no budget.

And you shot digitally?

On a Red.

All on Red?

Nu uh, the surfing on a 5.



And how has shooting digitally influenced the look of it because obviously it’s a period film?

No, the Red is beautiful. The red looks like film and I think we’ve given everything quite an interesting grade.

It’s amazing, you spent seven years raising the money and the process of actually shooting it is 30 days?

No, we shot in four weeks, not counting the surfing. A four-week shoot.

That’s an incredible amount of prep time to be put into this really intense shooting period.

Not really because it’s an intense shooting period and then the post-shooting period is intense. We finished; I just did the music mix this morning and we shot last August. I’ve been working full time on this. So it’s not intense. It goes on and on and on. But I’ve worked with such great people. That’s the difference between doing something with no money and having a budget. Working with people who take an idea and fly versus working with people who you have to begrudgingly bring to set because you’re not paying them, are two totally different things.

And it’s your choice of which artists and people you choose to work with.

To make an orchestra. That’s the way I see film making. And the director is the conductor. That’s all we are.

And one bum violin player and it can all…

Yeah, but one brilliant violin player and it takes it to another level. So for me, whatever the compromises are, I want to work with the best people because that takes me to another level. I know not everyone does things that way but that’s my way.


Sara: I’ll tell you who shot, Lance Gewer. Megan Gill edited, she’s also brilliant, she worked on Wolverine and Tsotsi. You know 340ml? The guitarist Tiago, he scored the music together with Alan Lazar. But Tiago is like, I think this is maybe his first proper film he’s ever scored and he’s so brilliant. He’s really such a talented boy. He put a whole lot of Tumi’s music in the soundtrack.

And has Tumi seen it yet?



We basically had this idea at one point that what we would do is that we would show the film to a whole lot of musicians and then see who felt touched or whatever. So we invited Tumi and Tiago and Zaki and a whole lot of other people and they came and I was sitting watching in the front of the movie theatre and they were sitting behind me and in the middle of the movie I hear this complete sobbing and I turn around and Tumi is sobbing. It seems like a film that really touches people. It seems like a magic film. People just get and it moves people. I think it deeply touches them and I think it’s because it tells a real story.

And also if you put so much…

Blood in a film.


Yeah! Exactly. That’s true.

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