Otelo Burning is a 2011 South African drama film directed and produced by Sara Blecher. The screenplay was written by James Whyle, Sara Blecher and The Cast Workshop. The film is in Zulu with English subtitles. It stars Jafta Mamabolo (Generations), Thomas Gumede (A Place Called Home), and Tshepang Mohlomi (Izulu Lami).
It is 1989, and the struggle against apartheid has reached its peak. The story starts when 16-year-old Otelo Buthelezi, his younger brother, Ntwe, and his best friend, New Year, are invited to the beach house where their new friend’s mother is a domestic worker.
Watching Mandla Modise surf, they are taken into a world previously closed to them. It is exactly the opposite of the township where they live – a place under a constant and growing threat from political violence fuelled by Inkatha hostel dwellers on one side, and United Democratic Front comrades on the other. For the boys, who previously had a deep-seated fear of the sea, “flying on water” comes to represent freedom, and they are sold.
Soon, everyone recognises that Otelo is truly gifted on the water, a surfing star in the making. An older white man, Kurt Struely, approaches the boys, certain of their potential. He invites them to his home to watch some professional surfers on video. He also paints an enticing picture of the life they could have if they learn to master the waves. With practice, Otelo soon outshines his friend, Mandla, whose resentment builds even more when Dezi, New Year’s younger sister, falls for Otelo.
As the boys begin to win competitions, Mandla’s jealousy grows and eventually he betrays his friend. In exchange for money for a new surfboard, he sells Otelo’s brother out as a suspected informer for the apartheid security police.
When Otelo discovers the truth behind his younger brother’s death, he has to make a choice between the money, glamour, girls and superstardom of international surfing and justice for Ntwe. On the day Nelson Mandela steps out of prison for the first time in 27 years, the young boy makes a choice that will change his life.