Vol 2, No 13
27 March 2000
Pricking Germany's Racist Conscience
Frieder Schlaich's Otomo
Elke de Wit
Documentary-style feature films are all the rage these days. One could argue that realism in art reflects a society which instead of using its imagination merely replicates itself, resulting in films which are rather boring. Frieder Schlaich's Otomo (1999), however, is more provactive, using the docu-style to confront society with its own racism. It does this by bringing the true story of Frederic Otomo to the attention of German audiences, who until now have only heard about him via the one- sided opinions of the police force and the press.
Otomo's case is a famous one in Germany, the country where he lived legally, but without a passport or work permit, until his violent death. The film shows that day in 1989 when the West African Otomo killed two Stuttgart policemen and injured three others with a 35cm blade. He in turn was shot and killed by the police.
The film starts out in a symbolist sequence of Otomo (Isaach de Bankolé) walking towards a poster of the crucifixion of Christ. He then packs all the contents of his room into one battered case, leaves the building and gets on a tram.
As the day continues Otomo has no luck at the job centre. He tries to get a lift with a Dutch trucker, who asks him for money to smuggle him into Holland. Otomo goes in search of the cash and happens across Gisela (Eva Mattes) who is out by the canal with her granddaughter. She shows pity on him and takes him to her daughter's flat.
Finally the police track Otomo down on a bridge. He is cornered by two of them and then reinforcements arrive. The scene is reminiscent of a group of animals trapping a single unprotected prey whose pack has left without it.
Otomo lashes out. Irrational as it may be, it is the only path he has left. But the feeling we are left with is that it is just as irrational to give someone permission to stay in a country without letting them work, and to make them reapply for permission to stay every few months. Even if Otomo had wanted to work, he could not have done so legally under the conditions his residence permit allowed.
Otomo depicts its main character's search for resolution to these harsh circumstances. Although there isn't a lot of action and we already know how the film is going to end, the eerie compelling score, which seems to drive the African from place to place, keeps the attention of the viewer.
Speaking to Schlaich at the Berlin Film Festival, I asked him what he had wanted to achieve with this film. He told me that at the time of the incident the papers were full of stories about the murder of the policemen, but nobody bothered to ask any questions about who this man Otomo was. Schlaich immediately had the idea of doing some research himself and making a film about the real man behind the incident. The racism and outrage surrounding this incident, however, made this virtually impossible.
But when he met resistance from all sides, including the social workers who had had contact with Otomo, he decided to pursue other projects first. In 1997, he tried again and found that this time, eight years removed from the event, it was easier to acquire information and the long process of making the film was begun.
When Otomo recently premiered in Stuttgart it was slated by the press. However, according to Schlaich it was the media who had initially instigated the feelings of anger towards the African "cop killer" which had resulted in the stoking up of racial hatred towards the immigrant population, and they were now not prepared to be objective about what may have driven this man to do what he did.
Although Stuttgart is the town that should most be able to learn from this film and reflect on how it reacted to these events, one feels that the lessons could apply anywhere in a world with an increasing number of displaced people and unwanted refugees.
Elke de Wit, 3 April 2000
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