Surfing And Self-expression In Otelo Burning

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While Sara Blecher’s film Otelo Burning takes place during one of the most notable turning points in contemporary South African history, its primary focus is on the coming-to-age of three teenagers and their complicated perception of surfing. The characters Mandla, Otelo, and New Year each interacts with the oppressive constraints of the political conflict in different methods, and find their lives forever impacted by not only their interest in surfing but also the violence and turmoil of the political conflict they attempt to live through. Maturing amidst apartheid-era South Africa, the teenage characters of Otelo Burning become microcosms of their strife-ridden nation as they mirror the internalized oppression, mimicry of violence, and astute logic observed in their real-life contemporaries.

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Although Apartheid is never explicitly mentioned by name, its effects clearly permeate several aspects of the characters’ lives. In order to practice their surfing, the three teenagers enter beaches clearly marked “whites only” and store their surfboards in a house occupied by a white family. Although none of the characters associate themselves with either side of the conflict, they repeatedly display displeasure at their status quo of social, political, and economic disadvantage and aim to leave their hometown of Lamontville.

Whereas the three teenagers view surfing as a hobby turned potential career, Mandla equates his surfing skills with his sense of superiority. At the beginning of the film, surfing is a talent and hobby that is solely enjoyed by Mandla, who describes the sport as “whites riding waves” in order to boost its racial exclusiveness. With virtually free access to the home and private beach of a white family, Mandla consistently wields power over his friends by controlling the pace of their learning. Under the guise of teaching his friends, Mandla consistently attempts to stall his friends’ mastery of the sport by dictating when they are “ready” for the waves and turning Otelo into a “chicken” instead of giving him a straightforward answer on how to make sharp turns on the water. When Otelo’s talent blossoms and robs Mandla of his former position as the best surfer of the group, Mandla is unable to comprehend the change in their dynamics and attempts to remove Otelo altogether as a rival. Mandla’s obsessive attachment to surfing thus conveys his hopes to distance himself from his racial identity by remaining the most proficient at a sport that is clearly dominated by the disproportionately privileged white people.

In the larger context of Apartheid, Mandla’s obsession with superiority transcends childlike hopes of excellence to convey the far-reaching influence of its systemized racism. Although Mandla seemingly wields authority over the boys’ access to the beach as well as their surfboards, Mandla too is bidden to the racial hierarchy of South Africa as a person of color. Although Mandla is initially described to be able to navigate both the whites-only beach as well as Lamontville at will, he experiences racial discrimination firsthand at the hand of the white family whose house he frequents. Contrary to New Year and Otelo’s assumption that the son of the white family and Mandla are “like brothers,” the owner’s son blatantly insults Mandla, telling him to “Remember where he belongs” as the servant of the family. Ashamed and angry at the boy’s admonition, Mandla later attempts to reclaim his superiority by angrily commenting that he is “a better surfer” than the homeowner’s son, and claims that he “should be living in that house” instead. Whereas Mandla hopes to escape Lamontville through surfing, his hopes are clearly racially motivated. Mandla’s repeated wishes to associate himself with geographical regions and hobbies considered exclusive to whites convey his subconscious wishes to distance himself from the rejection and discrimination he faces during the Apartheid era.

Furthermore, Mandla’s ultimate displeasure at the discrimination he faces extends to display a degree of self-oppression. Mandla’s self-aggrandizing determination transcends the boundaries of mere pompousness for the final time when he goads Otelo while held at gunpoint, telling him to “stay home and drive taxis, black boy.” By referring to Otelo as a “black boy” destined to become a taxi driver, Mandla expresses his hopes to see Otelo confined to his squalid and oppressive status while expressing the hope that he himself would be able to escape such a predicament. Mandla’s insult becomes his final attempt to elevate and thus distance himself from his racial identity as he is murdered by an enraged Otelo. Mandla not only displays the everyday discrimination faced by people of color during the Apartheid era but also ultimately fails to achieve his ultimate goal of political elevation and empowerment.

Whereas Mandla views surfing as a means to assert his racial otherness, Otelo views the sport as a means to attain socio-economic sovereignty. In a conversation with Dezi, Otelo likens surfing to a ticket to freedom that will allow him to accomplish “big things with [his] life” instead of staying in Lamontville as a mere taxi driver. He additionally expresses his hopes that a professional career in surfing would allow him to afford luxuries that are exclusive to whites such as room service. As a result, Otelo’s character arc focuses on his internal conflict of choosing between his fraternal responsibility of protecting his brother Ntwe and his personal aspirations. Although Otelo consistently makes an effort to accomplish both goals, he ultimately chooses his surfing career and attends the regional surfing championship with disastrous results. Otelo wins the competition and comes in first place, only to spark Mandla’s jealousy and leave Ntwe unguarded. As a result, Otelo fails to accomplish either of his goals.

Similar to Mandla, Otelo’s pursuit of surfing unwittingly draws him into the Apartheid conflict. By choosing the regional competition over his brother, Otelo defies his father’s instructions to look out for Ntwe and fails to act as a responsible older brother. As a result, Ntwe becomes an unintentional victim of Apartheid despite having little to no knowledge of the politics behind the conflict altogether. Otelo’s realization of his mistake only results in further tragedy; Rather than to wait for the law to prosecute Mandla, Otelo extrajudicially avenges his brother by staging a murder-suicide. Otelo’s direct exposure to the harsh and violent reality of his politically divided hometown causes him to not only abandon his personal goals but also amplify the losses caused by the political conflict. Although Otelo physically escapes Lamontville on a surfboard, he metaphorically succumbs to its violence and political divide, losing not only a trusted friend and loving brother but also his personal life and career in the process. In the process, Otelo comes to represent another breed of the young, impressionable teenagers that are not fully aware of the minute specificities of the crisis they experience during their maturation, but nevertheless become complicit in its progression.

Despite being the film’s ultimate narrator, New Year has a comparatively diminished presence in the better part of the film. However, his nuanced opinions toward surfing as well as the Apartheid conflict ultimately allows him to become the sole survivor of the trio. Whereas Apartheid is never explicitly discussed between Otelo’s family members, New Year’s family is acutely aware of the proceedings. This is conveyed through news reports of key events such as the escalation of tensions between the African National Congress and the national party as well as the emancipation of Nelson Mandela, all of which are exclusively conveyed through the electronic devices owned by Mother Christmas or Skhumbuzo. Whereas Mandla and Otelo view surfing as a means of permanent escape, New Year has a more realistic view of surfing. During a conversation with his brother Blade, New Year claims that “When you’re on top of a wave, all this shit goes away”. New Year treats surfing not as a distant dream to aspire for, but a temporary dalliance or getaway for the time being. His logical assessment of surfing as an element of his present-day life rather than that of an idealistic future prevents him from obsessively relying on the sport. This saves him from the pitfalls that Mandla and Otelo fell into, and ultimately allows him to move on from the sport itself.

Although surfing occupies a significant part of the boys’ development, New Year’s survival is clearly linked to his ability to leave the sport in the past. As the sole survivor of the trio, New Year occupies the somewhat austere vocation of taking over his uncle Skhumbuzo’s position as a swimming instructor for the youth of Lamontville. While his future is far from Otelo and Mandla’s grandiose visions of wealth and empowerment, it physically and psychologically allows New Year to move on from the pains associated with it, particularly the deaths of his friends as well as the overall impact of Apartheid. New Year remains wary of the sea’s self-destructive “songs of freedom” which “took Mandla and took Otelo too”. “This pool can give you a future. Are you sure you want to go in?” New Year asks the children he coaches, acknowledging the legacy of his friends yet subtly warning his potential successors of its corrupting powers. Although New Year physically remains in his hometown, he metaphorically escapes the political oppression of the Apartheid era and truly achieves the boys’ collective goal to distance themselves from the Lamontville they grew up in. By becoming a swimming instructor, New Year represents the transitional generation that survives to voice the grievances of the past and guide their newly emancipated and empowered descendants.

At first glance, Otelo Burning presents itself as a classic bildungsroman balancing values such as societal duty vs. individuality as well as morality and corruption. However, a closer analysis of the characters’ interaction with political events largely out of their control details a rich story of a generation of citizens dealing with institutionalized oppression and social upheaval. As individuals representing the varied reactions of their overall generation, Mandla, Otelo, and New Year demonstrate an amalgamation of dejection, rage, and rationale as they come to terms with their rapidly shifting reality.

Works Cited

  • Blecher, Sara, director. Otelo Burning. Kanopy, 2011, vanderbilt.kanopy.com/video/otelo-burning. 
10 Jun 2021

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