Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sara Blecher's OTELO BURNING debuts digitally via Sundance Institute's Artist Services Program

If you were lucky enough to see the unusual and eye-opening 2011 documentary White Wash (if you'd like to, click here), you'll already be one-up on the idea of black surfboarders taking to the waves and having one of those waves "catch them," rather than the other way around -- which, as we're told, is simply untrue: A surfer, black or white, never "catches a wave." Rather, the wave catches him or her. All of the above is a kind of prelude to my discussion of the film that arrives here digitally this coming week: OTELO BURNING, a narrative movie by Sara Blecher that has its style and roots deep in the documentary form.

This should be no surprise, for the documentary realm is from where Ms Blecher hails (the filmmaker is shown above), having made the 2011 South African "train surfing" doc Surfing Soweto and then the South African version of the TV reality series, Who Do You Think You Are?  Initially, Otelo Burning seems quite like a documentary in many ways, from its look, sound (the movie is narrated as often as any dialog is spoken) and performances, which have to them, the kind of "reality" we often expect from that other, true-life movie format.

The film tracks a groups of friends -- Otelo (below, right); his little brother, Ntwe (below, left, and in the fourth photo down); their friend New Year and his sister Dezi (above); and a new and possible friend named Mandla, a sexy interloper (two photos below) who introduces the group to surfing, at which Mandla is pretty damned good.

There's a lot going on in Otelo Burning, much of it seemingly peripheral to the story -- the coming end of apartheid and the rebellions forming toward that purpose; Otelo and Ntwe's father's great fear that something will happen to Little Ntwe (he imagines it to be the mythical/legendary snake that's said to inhabit the local river, in which Ntwe almost drowns at the film's beginning); the expected racism that shows itself more in the white families for whom these blacks toil than in the surfing competitions in which they eventually engage.

Ms Blecher manages to weave all this together, however, and pretty well, until we understand that all of it is connected in ways that most of these kids -- too young and immature to do much more than surf, fall in love and get in a little trouble -- can possibly yet have figured out.

What dialog is heard is spoken mostly in Zulu and occasionally in English, and the performances by all range from at least serviceable to quite good. Blecher coaxes a real feeling of community and pleasant extemporaneous-ness from her actors, at least up until the point that coming-of-age morphs into heavy melodrama and something supremely dark.

We know that some of the folk we've seen and heard have access to guns, and that talk of an informer has been heard circulating. When a sudden and truly horrific act occurs, the horror of it threatens to derail the movie and in fact turns it into another genre -- without the filmmaker's possessing quite the genre-jumping expertise that a more seasoned hand might bring to the project.

Maturity is thrust suddenly upon certain characters, while the chance for this is stolen from one of them. Yet another is shown up to be supremely, shockingly evil. How well you buy all this will depend, I think, on how much you've given yourself over to the movie at the point at which it seems to change course. I had some trouble here, though I'm happy to have had the chance to meet this little group and share in their lives for a time.

The tag line about "freedom" on the movie's poster steals from the old Janis Joplin song. Freedom of a sort is certainly important to Otelo and his friends, though their understanding of it is at this point woefully limited. Surfing provides a taste of it (oddly, the movie spends rather little time on the actual learning of the skill or even of its being practiced in the water, above), but any kind of genuine freedom for South African blacks (or whites, for that matter) still eludes this sad, traumatized country. (For the best and deepest look so far at post-Apartheid South Africa, do see -- if you haven't already -- Disgrace, the fine and disturbing movie starring John Malkovich.)

Meanwhile, Otelo Burning opens digitally this Tuesday, January 14, via the Sundance Institute's Artist Services Program -- with the film available for pre-order through Sundance Institute’s Now Playing page, as a result of the partnership between Sundance Institute and IFP, which release several of their alumni films each year through this collaboration. Otelo Burning will also be making its debut on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Microsoft Xbox, Sony Entertainment Network, SundanceNOW, VUDU and YouTube/GooglePlay.

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