Amped, by David Bax

When someone is making a movie (or writing a novel or poem or what have you) in which the chief concern is a political or social message, the choice of whether to be artful or blunt must be a difficult one. Otelo Burning, about a group of black teens in South Africa learning to surf in the late 1980’s while apartheid begins to crumble, mostly favors the latter but manages to be engaging while doing so.

Otelo is a teenager who lives in the township of Lamontville with his father and his younger brother, Ntwe. He and his friend New Year (who narrates the film) get to know a slightly older boy named Mandla who teaches them to surf, something they had previously only seen white people do. Otelo proves a natural at the sport and, in a little over a year, is competing on a national level. Due as much to surfing as to political developments, the boys see their relationship with whites changing, minutely and cautiously. Meanwhile, tension between factions of blacks threatens to graduate to violence that will rend Lamontville.

Director Sara Blecher does a good job of keeping these two antagonizing strains – the long-standing, largely below-the-surface, insidious one with the whites and the immediately menacing one among the blacks – moving concurrently without losing any significant focus. She does so by training that focus specifically on the boys and their coming of age via the zen of surfing. Usually, new-agey stuff about the spirituality of riding the waves is as annoying as a test of the Emergency Broadcast System but since Blecher contrasts it directly with the unrelenting hardships and dangers of the boys’ daily lives, it is a little bit earned. The power of the metaphor is that it suggests that freedom is not as straightforward as a political concept that people fight and kill and die for. Freedom is the luxury to not have to worry about such things. The solitude of the ocean provides that.

Blecher’s main assets are the young actors. Jafta Mamabolo as Otelo and Thomas Gumede as New Year are particularly good but Sihle Xaba as Mandla and Tshepang Mohlomi as Ntwe round out the core cast of boys nicely. It’s probably because the performers are so young themselves that they are able to capture the sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating lack of perspective that comes with youth. Their outlooks on life are defined almost solely by the most recent thing that happened to them, be it good or bad. Not coincidentally, this is the best philosophy of life for a person existing in a melodrama.

Lance Gewer, the film’s cinematographer, is responsible for some of the best and the worst things about Otelo Burning. He provides a subtle formalist key to understanding the boys’ worlds by making Lamontville give off a sickly glow, as if it is radioactive, while making the sand and sea look clean, cool and inviting. The township is the thirst and surfing is what quenches it. Unfortunately, the compositions that hold these color elements are, for the most part, uninspired and conventional. The frame appears blocky and utilitarian, giving the film a made-for-TV look.

Otelo Burning likely won’t show up on anyone’s list of the best films of the year. The beats of its plot are often predictably melodramatic and it can be histrionic in its themes. Still, with the ingredients it has, it can afford to be a little sloppy.

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