Chit Chat: Sara Blecher

2012-04-21 14:10

Your film is all the rage in South Africa. People want to know who Sara Blecher is and where she’s from.
My family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, from South Africa when I was 12, so I grew up there going to a public high school.

I later went to Georgetown University, but I didn’t last long because I found it stifling. Besides, I had ambitions to be a writer, or at the least a foreign correspondent. So I followed my heart and dropped out of school, and moved into the real world.

For an 18-year-old New York-South African Jew, that was Paris. I lived there for a year.

Have you ever done any of the odd jobs creatives seem to do before following their passions?
I think I’ve been working since I was 16. So the list is endless. I’ve waitressed in New York, Washington and Paris, and I’ve modelled for an artist. I worked as an assistant for an archivist and a playwright. I worked as a food decorator at the US Open.

I even worked as an elevator operator (not kidding – I ran the elevator for the models) for a very famous New York fashion photographer.

I was also a journalist and a driver, and I am sure I am leaving more things out.

How did you get into film?
While living in Paris and working as a waitress and a baby-sitter, I met this guy who invited me to a party. It was the coolest party with the trendiest people. Someone came up to me and introduced himself as a photographer. He then asked me what I did for a living.

Seriously, this was the moment I decided to be a filmmaker.

I decided right there and then that I would never again be at a party like that and have to say I was a waitress. That simply wasn’t the plan for my life. So I went back to New York and enrolled in film school.

Otelo Burning is getting positive reactions from film lovers and critics. How well do these responses match your expectations?
Well, I’m a director, so people don’t come to me and say they hated my movie. But what is so exciting is that people can’t stop talking about it. For me that means, as a filmmaker, I’ve done my job.

What was the toughest test you endured during the making of this film?
Except from being kept away from home for a long time, the money part was the most difficult. We thought we had all the financing lined up and then in the middle of shooting half the financing fell away.

Being the director and producer, I remember asking the cast to put in 100% effort and I knew that I couldn’t pay them come Friday. That was one of the most horrible times of my life.

At some point I asked my mother for money, and then my husband, and I bonded our house. Then my executive producer, Kevin Fleischer, took a risk and put in his money. After all that stress, Zanele Mthembu, group head at, came on to set, loved the story and said: ‘Here’s the money.’

Filming required you to put a bunch of black boys on a surfboard. Weren’t you nervous about stereotypes about blacks and water?
Well, you can imagine casting for black surfers was interesting. Oh, but I was most nervous when we interviewed people in Lamontville about the story. Some gangsters came in and said we couldn’t make this film without hearing their version of the story.

That was special.

We also held a series of workshops to train cast members who weren’t actors, all of whom came from the area and wanted to be part of the project. So everyone wanted to help, even if they had to scare us into doing it.

The story is set against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Were you not wary of falling into the clichéd Mandela narrative trap?

I feel so lucky that I’m part of a generation that doesn’t have to tell the stories of apartheid, and the evils and the bad things that everybody did.

Those are important stories to tell, but now we are finished with apartheid and we can look at human drama. We don’t have an agenda.

This film doesn’t try to convince anyone of anything. It shows real life and tells a real story.

How tricky is it being a working mother in an industry as demanding as filmmaking?
It’s tricky. It only works if you have an unbelievably supportive husband and amazing children. I’m lucky like that. We’ve been married for 19 years.

» Otelo Burning will be screened at selected cinemas from May 11

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