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Capturing Truth through Fiction in South Africa

Capturing Truth through Fiction in South Africa

The story of how I found my way to film is a funny one. I was living in Paris, and I had no money. I was working as a waitress and a babysitter, pretty much doing everything I could to feed myself. Then I met this guy who invited me to a party. It was by far the coolest party, with the hippest people, I’d been to in all my time in Paris. Someone introduced himself to me as a photographer and asked what I did. I decided right then and there that I would never again be at a party like this and have to say I was a waitress or a babysitter. So I went back to New York and enrolled in NYU film school.

I was born in South Africa. My family immigrated to New York when I was 13.
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School, I took a convoluted route that
started out at the School of Foreign Services at Georgetown University with the
intention of becoming a foreign correspondent; meandered through Paris trying
to find the meaning of life in the “real world”; and crossed the minefields of
South Africa in the death throes of Apartheid as a journalist performing special underground political assignments.

After graduating from film school, I returned to South Africa, met and married my husband, had
children, eventually set up a film and television production company, and have
been making documentaries and television drama series ever since. Last year, I
completed my first feature film, Otelo Burning, which has played at over 70 festivals around the world and
received critical acclaim and numerous awards.

Feature films were always my goal. My early experience and training making
documentaries and television dramas gave me the tools necessary to achieve this.
My passion for politics influenced the stories I chose to tell and the
landscape against which these personal stories would be expressed. I strongly
believe that the more varied experience you have, the deeper your understanding
and critical analysis becomes. Some people make features when they’re young and without
life experience. I don’t know how they do this; I couldn’t.

Film has the power to take you into other lives and other worlds. That’s
what I want for my films; I want people to watch Otelo Burning and to feel like they’ve
had a real experience of another world that perhaps they did not know before.

Otelo Burning was in development for over seven years and, much like City of God, came out of an extensive workshop process conducted with people from
Lamontville, a township near Durban.

The process started when I was sitting on a Durban beach chatting with a lifeguard,
Sihle Xaba. He told me about the township where he grew up, the only coastal
township in South Africa that has a swimming pool. He went on to tell me
stories about the pool and the people in the township. I saw a film in his stories. I
was hooked.

Over the years, that story of the film changed again and again, sometimes in workshops and
sometimes just on the page. Seven years later, it became Otelo Burning. And the
lifeguard Sihle became the character Mandla. The workshop consisted of
ex-gangsters, builders, lifeguards, and swimmers — all residents of the township
who had been witnesses or participants in the story on which the film is

Later, we held a second workshop to give these participants basic acting skills
so some of them could appear in the film. As a result, the story is infused
with realism: it’s a story about Lamontville told by the people of
Lamontville. People often ask me how much of the film is true, and the answer is
that it is based on different people’s lives amalgamated into one story.   

For many years, South African filmmakers have felt the need to shape their
films to appeal to foreign audiences for financial gain and personal acclaim.
This diluted the integrity and power of the narratives and diminished what is
unique and compelling about them.

However, recently, following the successes of films like Tsotsi, Beauty, and District Nine, this is changing. A new group of young filmmakers — many
of us who honed our skills on the streets of violence-wracked townships and
serial TV programmes — and several of us who are women, are now telling our own
stories in our own way.  This is both more direct and authentic and has
allowed for a lot more varied voices to be heard.

a country like ours, with such a horrific history of violence against women, having
female perspectives represented on screen is not a luxury, but  a
necessity. For me, this is not so much a matter of the choice of subject matter, but rather the choice of treatment of that subject matter. Otelo Burning is a
film about a particularly violent period of South Africa’s history, but if one
looks carefully at the treatment of that violence, the camera gaze is more
often than not on the consequences of that violence rather than the traditional
male perspective of the mechanics of the violence. It’s a subtle but vital

In Africa we have had to learn to make movies more cheaply than in Europe, America, or Asia. This gives us the freedom to protect the creativity in our
work as we are not so dependent on having to recover enormous costs. And we
have so many incredible stories here and incredible actors, DOPs, art
directors, musicians and so on.

Much like Shakespeare’s OthelloOtelo Burning is a story about jealousy, greed and betrayal. But mostly it is a
story about freedom and what that means. If there is a message in the film, it
is that freedom is very fragile. It is difficult to get but easy to lose. If we
don’t guard against things like greed and jealousy, which lead to corruption,
then we will lose this precious freedom very quickly. It is important
to tell stories that look at who we are as a nation now and that rings warning
bells about where we are heading in the future. This is why art is such a
critical part of democracy. 

is an award-winning documentary director and producer
with numerous projects under her belt, including
Bay of Plenty, an
award-winning 26-part drama series chronicling the lives of a group of Zulu
lifeguards on the Durban beachfront. In 2011, she released
Surfing Soweto, a
documentary following the lives (and deaths) of a group of so-called “train
surfers” in South Africa. 
Otelo Burning is her
 first feature film. 

Otelo Burning made its VOD premiere on January 14, 2014. The film is also available for pre-order through Sundance Institute’s Now Playing page, as a result of the partnership between Sundance Institute and IFP, which releases several of their alumni films a year through this collaboration. Visit the film’s official site here.

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