Beyond the Surf: Sara Blecher’s Otelo Burning (2011)

6 Mar 2015 - 12:30

“Freedom is a Revolution” – Otelo Burning Poster.

On the 1st August , 2013, I took a small reprieve from my studies here at the University of Cape Town in order to attend a screening of the multi-award winning South African film Otelo Burning. Expecting a full house I arrived early. What immediately struck me was the fact that one of the faces on the screen (character Mandla Modise) was sitting quietly just outside the door. As it turns out, not only was I in the presence of a waterman turned film star Sihle Xaba, but director/ producer Sara Blecher was in attendance for the Q&A as well.

Sihle Xaba and Sara Blecher on the ‘set’ of Otelo Burning.


The screening of the film formed part of a larger Cape Town project organised by (avid surfers) Meg Samuelson (Head of English Language and Literature, UCT) and Glen Thompson (Department of History, Stellenbosch University), with support from UCT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Social Responsiveness and its Africa Cinema Unit. In the beachfront township of Khayelitsha (Esengweni High School) and suburb of Muizenburg, screenings and/or discussions took place for participants in the visionary Isiqalo Waves for Change programme, which takes as its mission the project of “building safer communities and brighter futures for the most excluded – by riding waves”.  In our department, the screening and Q&A was an extension of a third year elective seminar course entitled ‘Subjects at Sea: Sailors and Surfers’.

Watching Otelo Burning at Esengweni High School, Khayelitsha, 2 August, 2013 (still from an audio/visual recording by Greg Bakker). (Picture Above)


Emerging out of these engagements is an installment of the “Contemporary Conversations” series in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, (Vol. 26, Issue 3, September 2014). The ‘supplemental content’  from these events, in textual, audio and video form can be found as part of the additional material of the introduction.  Critical articles by Samuelson and Thompson place the film in dialogue with literary and photographic framings of its beach setting and situate it within Zulu surfing histories The journal edition also includes responses by Bhekizizwe Peterson, Litheko Modisane and David Johnson, which “spotlight key features of the film, including … the limitations and expansive possibilities of its renderings of personal and political freedom”. The section concludes with an interview with Blecher and Xaba that explores the making and meanings of the film.

In her article entitled ‘Re-telling Freedom in Otelo Burning,’ Samuelson draws attention to the way in which “subjectivity is re-plotted” in the film “from subjugation towards the rights-and-responsibility bearing subject of citizenship”. One only has to engage with the ‘sound bites’ drawn from the three different discussions that comprised this series of events to understand how important this film is for thinking through ideas of freedom, and its need for “re-telling”.

Ultimately, the Otelo Burning project, not only challenges us to revolutionise our understanding of freedom, but also, to do freedom.

‘New Year’ (Thomas Gumede) and ‘Otelo’ (Jafta Mamabolo).