Year Released: 1999
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 15+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Paul Bowles: Half Moon, The Visitor, A Time to Kill, Brother from Another Planet, Illegal, For My Father, Waalo Fendo, Black Girl, Do the Right Thing
Notes: Warning! Spoilers will be mentioned in this review.
-Otomo was directed by Frieder Schlaich. Some of his other directorial work includes Am Strand von Merkela, Naomis Reise, and Paul Bowles: Half Moon.
-This film was based on a real-life event that took place in Stuttgart, Germany. Frieder Schlaich and Freundeskreis (a German hip-hop group who scored this movie) are actually from that city. Stuttgart is the 6th largest city in that country and clocks in at over 635K people living there. Currently, 40% of the population (immigrants and natural citizens) is of non-German descent and it has been a hot spot for immigrants moving there since the 60s. Some people associated with this city include Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the same guy behind those cars), filmmaker Roland Emmerich, Geoff Tate from Queensryche, Ulrich Bez (former CEO of Aston Martin), K-Pop singer Haha, and the comedian/beatboxer Reggie Watts.
-The title character is played by Isaach de Bankole. He was born in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire to Beninese parents of Yoruba descent. de Bankole got his start acting in France where he lived for several years before moving to America. Some other movies he’s starred in were Casino Royale, Heart of Darkness, and even Black Panther of all films. Because of that fact, this makes Otomo the 2nd film I reviewed involving someone from that Marvel movie when you consider Forest Whittaker in the English dub of Ernest & Celestine. Also, he is fluent in Yoruba, French, German (which he speaks in this movie), Bambara, English, and even a little bit of Italian on all things.
-Music Fan Bonus: The song that Gisele dances to was actually “Fakastalu” by Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour.
-Otomo won Best Film at Belgamo 2000.
Immigration is a hot-button issue in America, but this also applies to Europe as well. There are also double standards with how certain immigrants are treated in a new country regardless if they came in legally or not. Whenever Caucasian immigrants go to another country where most of the locals look like them, they can fit in just fine even if they have a different accent or if they don’t know the local language. Systemic racism makes things even worse for those who aren’t white. It’s bad enough when natural-born citizens deal with bigotry (look at America again…I rest my case and I’m not just speaking from experience). When those are discriminated against to the point of hopelessness despite doing everything right, it can make good people make bad choices when there’s no way out. Not that I’m excusing criminal activity (obviously), but some situations would’ve never happened if injustice didn’t breed injustice.
This particular movie was based on one such event that rocked Germany decades ago.
Otomo is about the life of Frederic Otomo. He’s a Cameroonian immigrant who has lived in Stuttgart, Germany for eight years after moving from multiple countries. The story takes place in 1989 and Frederic has been struggling so much. He was able to be a beneficiary of a Catholic charity and lived in a refugee shelter. Frederic struggles with trying to find work like how he gets refused a low-paying factory job due to his race and his shoes. On the train back, he gets profiled and harassed by the security personnel for having a bad ticket even though it was still valid. They block his way from the train and Frederic headbutts one of the security people and escapes. He’s currently homeless, but he wants to escape to another country and a trucker is willing to take him to The Hague, Netherlands if he pays him four hundred marks. Frederic clearly doesn’t have the money and has to figure out a way to make it. A hippie grandma in her forties named Gisela takes pity on him, but at the same time, the cops are after the struggling Cameroonian when the guy on the train presses assault charges on him.
There were certainly some worthy things about it. The acting was splendid with everyone playing their parts very well. Isaach de Bankole just nails it as the title character in this movie. Without even having to say anything, I can tell he has so much internalized anger and sadness even in the quiet moments. Hanno Friedrich does a great job as Heinz, the no-nonsense cop. One underrated role was Rolf played by Barnaby Metschurat who adds comic relief as Heinz’s rapping partner. He eases the tension of this movie as he gets the nickname “voice” while making cheesy rap songs on the fly while sounding like a German Vanilla Ice minus the fake street posturing (that and his rapping moments are intentionally funny). The music handled by Freundeskreis was really good. They used a lot of downtempo and lo-fi hip hop instrumentals which really worked with the tone and scenery of this film. I might even have to search for the soundtrack since there were some standout pieces of music for this movie. One thing that I really thought was intriguing was the realistic depiction of racism. Much like Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl movie, the bigotry on display isn’t so obvious like someone saying the N-word or acting like total rednecks (just look at so many American movies or TV shows when it comes to depicting racist characters). They acted like normal people, made facial expressions that show their disdain, made dog-whistle terms, and had low-key double standards against Frederic. Two examples that come to mind are the job opening scene and the parallel scenes with the cops patrolling Stuttgart. When Frederic is trying to get a job at the factory, the managers give him a hard time and one of them straight up insults him to his face about not hiring him because of his “jungle stomper” shoes which were a basic worn-down pair of loafers. I also got douche chills seeing that scene because the person who said it looks like a balding middle-aged version of a college classmate who said low-key racist things to me in hindsight and he sadly was a member of the student council as well as doing lots of things with the tech and sound departments. The cops patrolling really show the double standards when they get a call where a white woman is literally blasting music all night long which wakes up the neighbors, but all she gets is a warning even though she’s telling off the cops. Black people have been arrested or even gunned down for blasting music too loud in America. Just saying. Frederic defends himself against an unjust train security worker but has a whole manhunt for a simple assault case that could’ve been avoided if the person didn’t harass him to begin with. That was a good piece of writing and it shows how racism can happen in less overt ways.
With all of that said, I’d be lying if I said that Otomo wasn’t the most conflicting movie I’ve ever reviewed in my years of running Iridium Eye. For starters, I thought this movie looked older than it actually was. I didn’t know it was a period piece until the epilogue, so I won’t dock points for the older technology, but I seriously thought this was filmed in the late 80s instead of 1999. Weirdly enough, the cinematography reminded me of The Decalogue which isn’t a knock against that Polish film series, but at least that was filmed in the 80s and I don’t know if Otomo being filmed that way was intentional or not. The gritty camera work is fine, but everything looks lower-budget than what it actually is. I thought the pacing felt weird at times and I thought there would’ve been more needed tension if Frederic met Gisela and her granddaughter earlier instead of in the final act of the film. My biggest concern would be the ending, especially in this era where police brutality has become a hot topic. I know Otomo is based on a story that actually happened in Stuttgart (how much of it is accurate or embellished is irrelevant) and I understand that they were trying to make Frederic a sympathetic character with dealing with racists and surviving under conditions that aren’t under his control, but I could see this modern audience having some different takeaways in this experience. The most obvious one is people using the ending of Frederic being gunned down as carte blanche to be “tough on crime” (I’m using that dog whistle slogan for a point) to treat any non-white person with lethal force at all costs. However, those same people are probably those who rooted for the Corleones, The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Tony Montana from Scarface (the last one would be the most hypocritical on so many levels) so they don’t give a crap about crime as long as it’s the complexion with the protection doing it. Geez, double standards with crime dramas, much? I could also see this fueling anti-immigrant sentiment as well. Watching Otomo with the current racial and sociopolitical climate is very uncomfortable as I can see people interpreting this in nefarious ways especially with the fact that it was based on a real-life case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing the actions of the title character, but if he was an immigrant from let’s say Lithuania or Poland instead of Cameroon, the situation would look a lot different or at the very least he’d be treated with a LOT more sympathy from Western audiences (dog whistle subverted!) and everyone knows it.
Otomo is the most mentally conflicting movies I’ve seen. There are certainly redeemable qualities about this film like the acting, music, and the realistic portrayal of systemic racism which is good. What I do worry about is how the film can be interpreted by certain viewers. While there’s an anti-hero vibe with the Frederic Otomo character, I could see some people trashing him as some no-good African illegal who deserves to die at all costs, especially in this current day. I really wanted to like this movie regardless if it’s based on a real story or a fictional tale, but all I can see is it being divisive as different viewers interpret it. Otomo isn’t a bad film and I’ve reviewed movies that are objectively more racist and problematic than this one, but this film still has some implications that’s tough for me to shake off.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like gritty stories.
Add 1 point if you like movies with anti-heroes.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want immaculate production.
Subtract 2-3 points if you can’t stand movies that can be too ambiguous with morality.
-Powerful acting from the cast
-Great hip-hop instrumental soundtrack
-Realistic and believable depiction of systemic racism
-Some pacing issues in the story
-Cinematography looks a decade behind the times
-Ambiguous implications of Frederic’s story could be problematic with the interpretations
Final Score: 5/10 points
Content Warning: Otomo would be better for people in their older teens and up to watch. There’s some smoking and drinking, but that’s one of the tamer aspects of this film. There’s strong language including one case of Frederic saying the S-word in English of all things. Some of the dialogue from Rolf has sexual innuendos including one of his freestyles much to the chagrin of his partner Heinz. There’s blood and violence, especially during the final scene where the cops confront Frederic which does lead to a body count (saying nothing about how a scene like that would be VERY uncomfortable to watch in this day and age). There is even a case of art nudity inside Gisela’s house in one of the rooms.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Otomo is property of ArtMattan. The poster is from Alchetron and is property of ArtMattan.