Originally published 11 May 2012
While much of South Africa’s surfing community was crowded around the set of Blue Crush 2, trying to get their noses in the trough of the medium budget b-grade American flick, at the same time, a little independent movie was being shot between Umgababa and Scottburgh that will invariably have a much a larger effect on the world of South African surfing. Otelo Burning is the first ever Zulu language surf flick, and is sure to introduce the sport of kings to a whole new audience. It tells the story of a group of kids in the early 90s who discover surfing and use it escape the harsh realities of township life. The whole movie pivots on the political violence between ANC and Inkatha factions, that typified the pre-liberation era in the townships of KwaZulu Natal.
And while Otelo Burning, is a poignant rumination on the concept of personal freedom, using surfing as a metaphor, and Shakespeare as a storyboard, located at an important and often maligned time in our history, Blue Crush 2 is a prime example of topdown, b-grade Hollywood trash that barely flickered on the cinema circuit, went straight to a limited DVD run, duped some sucker at Mnet into buying it (because of it’s South African connection), and now invariably only exists as a torrent (in deteriorating health) and an IMDB profile. Whereas Otelo Burning offers something unique and relevant, Blue Crush 2 is like a sewage pipe spewing e.coli into the sea of our cultural collective consciousness.
But why all this focus on Blue Crush 2, when the hero of the day, surely, is Otelo Burning. Well allow me to connect the dots. The producers of Otelo Burning worked for 7 long years to make this film. As Director / Producer Sara Blecher says: “The film took seven years partly due to the time needed to work through the script, but mostly due to the difficulty of finding funding.”
Randall McCormick, who wrote Blue Crush 2, had no such problems. This is the same guy who brought us such incredible titles as Speed 2, Titan AE and The Scorpion King 2 and 3. Basically Randall spends his time looking for the burnt out ends of old Hollywood “franchises” and tries to get two good puffs on the entjie before chucking them in the bin (with the rest of his showreel). There’s a business model in there somewhere, but it certainly doesn’t provide a platform for powerful, relevant and transcendent filmmaking.
And yet Blue Crush 2 rolled into South Africa with a fat international budget from Universal Pictures, and leveraged off the Universal Pictures distribution network, giving this turd of a film, every possible opportunity to succeed. And it bombed, hard. As expected. And writer Randall McCormick and director / producer Mike Elliot have moved on to a range of new, well-funded projects. If you want to understand what’s wrong with the global film industry, just compare these two films.
Back in Mzansi, Sara Blecher stumbled across the idea for Otelo Burning while producing Bay of Plenty, an award winning drama series about black lifesavers in Durban that aired on the SABC (before the fall). She realised that many of these lifesavers came from Lamontville and followed the story back to a pool and an activist in this township.
“The character of the swimming coach is based on real life swimming coach, Sthembiso. He virtually single-handedly kept the Lamontville Pool operating through the Apartheid years. Some of the ‘true’ stories in the film were first told by Sthembiso, during the script workshops.”
Obviously, Sara made a plan to involve Sthembiso in the filming of Otelo. “On set, Sthembiso was head of security. He was the only person able to manage the local crowds that came to see the stars during filming.”
The approach to Otelo Burning was always rooted in a desire to represent reality, while telling a narrative of personal freedom, against a backdrop of the struggle for our national liberation, with surfing acting as the metaphor. It’s a storyline that is even more poignant today, than the champagne days of Mandela and the rainbow nation. On their shoestring budget, they still managed to run scripting workshops, so that the action on screen mirrors a recognisable and historically correct South Africa.
Meanwhile Blue Crush is set in a fabricated, fantastical pastiche of the South Africa tourists get to experience, where the cream of SA’s surfing talent live in a self-sustaining “hippie paradise” village on the beach, you can catch an old twin prop plane from Durban to Port Elizabeth and surf villains trade rhino horns to witchdoctors when they’re not romancing foreign blondes at beach bonfire parties or serenading the waves with acoustic guitars. And let’s not even get into the hatchet job done on the accents.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Blue Crush 2 is the length that the South African surf community went to assist and facilitate the making of this turd. And the end product, when it aired on Mnet, left a lot of the industry squirming in their lazy-boys and denying hard on Twitter. The credits read like a veritable roll of shame.
Twiggy Baker, Roosta Lange, Rosy Hodge, Kai Linder, Roxy Louw, Tarryn Chudleigh, Jordy Smith, Chad Du Toit, Josh Redman, Lyle Meek, Des Sawyer, John McCarthey, Warwick Wright, Bianca Buitendag, Mikey February, Rosy Hodge and many other South African surfing luminaries sullied their good names on this project. And yes, while one can argue that surfing is a tough business and these professionals were simply being paid for their services, the fact that Otelo Burning was filming at the same time, often in and around the same locations, and barely created a ripple of interest or enthusiasm in the local surf industry, speaks volumes about the disconnected suburban psyche of the average South African surfer.
Thankfully, Otelo Burning, is not positioned as a “surf film”. Nope, this is pitched directly at the mainstream, LSM 4-8, emergent black middle class kids (with a bit of global film festival action on top). It’s a youth culture product aimed at shaking up the Born Frees, pulling them in with a magnetic and exotic image of surfing that they can relate to, and then schooling them with the stark and violent social realities of our recent apartheid history, and the overarching message that all decisions have consequences.
And while the film has been largely maligned by the mainstream South African surf industry, it has gathered an increasing number of supporters. Tumi Molekane was so moved by an early screening that he offered to pull together a free promotional Mix Tape for the film, featuring the talents of Zaki Ibrahim, Reason, Zubz and Volume and 340ml guitarist, Tiago C. Paulo, who also contributed to the film’s score.
Meanwhile, the Otelo crew spent their money wisely, they put Lance Gewer, the same guy who shot the Oscar winning Tsotsi, in charge of the cinematography. They roped in specialist surf videographer Neil Webster to shoot the water footage. They hired professional surfers Quentin Tshabalala and Meshack Mqadi as surfing doubles, while Sihle Xaba, in the role of the villain Mandla, did his own surfing stunts. Jafta Mamabolo, who made his name on the critically acclaimed Jerusalema, was cast as the lead, Otelo.
However, it’d be a mistake going into Otelo Burning and expecting to see a perfect slice of the filmmaker’s art. Regardless of how well positioned the narrative and how beautifully rendered the cinematography, Otelo Burning suffers from a combination of its ambition and the limitations of its budget. Sara Blecher went out to make a poignant South African film, and there are moments of over-reaching that manifest in certain scenes bleeding the audience’s attention instead of focussing it. Surf purists will note that the boards used are modern instead of the era specific chunky thrusters of the late 80s. But all this is easily forgiven when you look at the aspirations of the project. In truth, they could have spent twice or three times their budget in bringing this tale to the movie theatre. And yet, we still have a highly original and entertaining piece of celluloid entertainment, that will perhaps set a new benchmark for relevant South African filmmaking. The many awards it continues to receive are an affirmation that quality doesn’t just last, it overcomes.
*Otelo Burning launches in cinemas across Mzansi today. Get more info here.