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Otelo Burning

Best of 2012 | Zulu Crush

by Andy Davis / 03.01.2013

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.

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RESPONSES (32)
  1. dylan says:

    Good read Andy, although I think that it’s unfair to criticize the local surfers who were involved with Blue Crush 2. They were fortunate enough to experience a taste of Hollywood, and get paid for it too. And from what I heard making that movie was a lot more fun than watching it… Did the Otelo Burning producers even ask any of these surfers to be a part of their project? Apples and oranges, bru.

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  2. Steve says:

    Yeah chalk and cheese.. Blue Crud is more like it.

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  3. Captain Kai says:

    From my side, Dyl is right, the Otelo Burning guys probably never got in touch with any of us in the surf industry. I certainly was not ever contacted. As for being in Blue Crush 2, it was a hell of a lot of fun. We were basically paid to go on an epic surf trip down the East coast of SA. Was the movie good, haha, probably not, but it was made for 13 year old surf girls – maybe you should ask that market what they thought of the film?

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  4. sara says:

    Luckily it isn’t too late to support Otelo. Go check it out.
    freedom is the revolution

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  5. Andy says:

    Missing the point here… people gravitated to Blue Crush, like flies to the shit, not just because of the money. It was a fun slice of vacuous hollywood fluff coming to SA and there was real buzz and excitement around it. In general, Otelo got no love, or attention from the surf industry. It bespeaks a certain mindset

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  6. Andy says:

    but yeah, go watch it. most NB thing.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Looks jitz

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  8. jacqui says:

    i’m confused at the comparison of the two…each should be taken for what they are..two entirely different genres.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    gud South African movie, bad article

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  10. When Bears fight Back says:

    My 9 year old daughter loved blue crush 2. It’s a lifestyle movie meant as entertainment. No lofty ideals. Comparing the two is really a waste of time. Blue crush provided employment for many South Africans who were able to fed themselves and their families. Art films like Othelo are important for our culture and understanding of others lives . The both have a place .

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  11. Anonymous says:

    i see anonymous is having another constipated day ……

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  12. Twig says:

    Haha…good one Andy, Blue Crush is what it is and there is no denying it!! I would have loved to be in Otelo but a blond white boy in Lamontville in the 80’s would have been a sore thumb I think? Could have been good to show us KZN surfers who where actually surfing the upper south coast during those years, hanging with the local population and lending support to the struggle? I wish I had been contacted to be involved.
    Keep up the good work bru, your strong voice is needed in this jittery and sometimes blinkered lifestyle we live. Twig

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  13. I Love Surfing says:

    Hey, Andy,
    It feels kind of sad to me that the only way you can think to boost Otelo Burning is to trash Blue Crush 2. The fact is, a lot of people had a great time working on Blue Crush 2 — they learned the same lessons about friendship and loyalty that the movie tries to teach. And most viewers I have talked to seem to like it. And I am certain that the people who worked on Otelo Burning probably had a great time working on that movie, too. And learned the same lessons that that move tries to present. A better article from you might have just been a big, exciting boost for Otelo Burning. The movie looks great and should really be able to stand on its own. Now you’ve gone and made its existence dependent on Blue Crush 2. Which, I suppose, it not all that bad since Blue Crush 2 is a pretty fun movie that showcases South Africa and surfing and humanity in a positive way — despite your weird rage about it.

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  14. Andy says:

    Thanks Twig… some good points in there. Maybe Otelo producers could have gone further to involve the local surf industry… and maybe the local surf industry could be a bit more switched on to stuff that’s happening beyond our gated suburbs – generally speaking here.

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  15. Sara says:

    What is “transcendent filmmaking”?

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  16. Andy says:

    Filmmaking that surpassing the ordinary and becomes exceptional. For starters

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  17. Captain Kai says:

    Mime Elliot, the Director of BC2 left this on my pst of this blog:
    “Wow. Ouch. I guess Andy Davis isn’t a 13 year old girl.”
    Haha classic response I think.

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  18. Captain Kai says:

    Sorry, that would be Mike not Mime

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  19. Daniel says:

    While I can see some peoples point when it comes to comparing Blue Crush 2 with Otelo Burning I do also get what Andy is saying.

    Blue Crush 2 totally misrepresents South Africa in almost every way it can (chickens on a aeroplanes, really?) which considering the high level of involvement from the SA surfing community is very disappointing -one would have hoped that the surfers would have wanted to make sure their home town was represented properly and not in some backwards fictitious hollywood manner.

    You just have to read the comments under the Blue Crush trailer to see how it has positioned SA to some globally. A selection for you:

    1) “lol south africa is one big shit hole”
    2) “This movie sucks but thats ok, I’d rather not go to that shit continent anyway.”
    3) “Why would you make a movie like this in a dump of a country like South Africa?”

    So I agree you cant blame the local surfers for not being involved in Otelo Burning if they were not asked to be BUT you can direct some very pointed questions towards the SA surfing community about why they got involved with a film that they knew would position SA in a poor light – and if they didn’t know that this was going to happen shame on them for not asking for some sort of sign off on some of the films content…

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  20. Paul van Jaarsveld says:

    I have long puked about Blue Crush 2. Personally, I wanted to be involved in the production and many people I know had some involvement in it/ I am sure the South Africans that were involved were just as shocked as me when they saw what utter crap was produced. The problem is, they were all locked in by contract and there was a bit of pay for the work done, but Blue Crush 2 sucks on multiple levels. I am very glad I was never part of it. I feel sorry for the people that were involved, because it´s just like stepping in a pile of poo. Great people don´t make a great movie. You need a good story line, a well informed director and producer and good actors. This movie has none of that. It´s supposedly aimed at teens, but our teens are not such idiots.

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  21. S-vans says:

    Otelo Burning is a magnificent film – described beautifully by Andy Davis, who described Blue Crush 2 with the same degree of accuracy. and yes, the point is everyone must go and see it! go to the cinema . support a beautifully-crafted LOCALLY-produced ‘surf film’ – i think the shame lies in if you’re a surfer and have watched Blue Crush 2, and you don’t bother to go and watch Otelo Burning.

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  22. shuttupandy says:

    another weak ass piece of opinion.

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  23. Andy says:

    S-vans is spot on!

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  24. Donovan says:

    Wow am amazed dat south africa is going far

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  25. Matt says:

    Hi Andy,

    Next time you name and shame someone …..John McCarthy (not McCarthey) you should check that they are not promoting the video first on their website (The Bomb Surf )

    If you’re gonna be a journalist then get your facts right and why shoot down someone else’s project (blue crush blah blah) just because it,s convenient to draw a comparison between to events with a similarity ? If you are looking for accountability then it should be held with the producers of Otello who did not reach an extensive pool of resources and knowledge from the SA surf industry !

    And, then I am lead to believe Nu Metro only showed it in Gauteng and Cape Town ? Ridiculous..

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  26. Andy says:

    Matt, your argument is totally misguided, beyond the spelling correction. Did you even read the piece? John McCarthy worked on Blue Crush, therefore he made the roll of shame along with all the other surf industry folks who threw themselves at Blue Crush 2 and ignored Otelo Burning. The fact that they, a local surf magazine, posted a video of the Otelo Burning trailer and told people to go watch it, hardly constitutes heavyweight support. It’s really just an indication of a surf magazine doing their job. But the two things are entirely unrelated.

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  27. Tee says:

    great comparative review!

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  28. Tee says:

    and where can i watch it~

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