In the course of an altercation with Stuttgart police in the summer of 1989, a knife-wielding Cameroonian immigrant named Frederic Otomo killed two cops and left three wounded. He himself was shot dead by a survivor. In the aftermath of the incident, the Stuttgart media went on an anti-immigrant witch-hunt. In a discussion period following the showing of "Otomo" at the 8th Annual New York Contemporary African Disapora Film Festival, youthful director Frieder Schlaich explained that he was so appalled by Stuttgart's racist hysteria that he resolved to make a film that would try to show Otomo as a real human being and not a monster. Basing himself on the bare factual outlines of Otomo's modest life, he succeeds admirably.

As Frederic Otomo, Ivory Coast-born actor Isaach de Bankole virtually becomes the character, a stoical hard-working man who lives in a hostel with almost no amenities except for some postcards tacked to the wall. Besides his black skin, nothing seems to mark him as an African except a few cowrie shells kept in a pouch and tossed each morning to tell his fate, plus a small cellophane bag filled with earth from his native village to remind him of home.

The fateful summer day begins at a day labor recruitment office where he is the only African. The other men are ill-clad East Europeans who have fled their own countries for the same reason as Otomo: lack of work. When Otomo is told by the recruiters that they can't use him because he lacks the proper papers, he leaves for the long subway trip home. In the course of the train ride, an overly officious conductor informs him that his ticket is not valid to cross into the next zone and that he will have to exit at the next station, far from his hostel. When Otomo insists--correctly--that his ticket is valid, the conductor accuses him of interference and summons the police. In order to avoid arrest and deportation, the undocumented worker lunges for the door as the train enters the station. When the conductor blockades the door with his body, Otomo punches him and flees.

From this point, the film becomes a manhunt as Stuttgart police, two of whom are major characters in the film, pursue Otomo as he wanders the streets of Stuttgart looking for a way out of town. One of the cops seems relatively enlightened, while his partner is a simple man who kills time on patrol singing foolish rap songs of his own invention. Neither cop seems quite willing to go along with the fear and loathing that motivate the manhunt. At the station the cops speak openly about the dangerous "nigger" from the jungle even though a search of his papers reveals that Otomo admires the German people and that his father was an officer in the Cameroon army supporting the German effort in WWI. One cop says that such loyalty is always appreciated--just look at the hard work of the German Shepherd dogs they keep at the station.

  Eventually Otomo finds himself sitting on the edge of a river staring forlornly at the water, trying to figure out how to save himself. Out of nowhere a little blond-haired girl approaches him with a flower. The image evokes the scene in Frankenstein when a similarly innocent girl approaches the monster at a lakeside. Clearly the director intended the effect to be the same. Since German society views the African as a monster on the loose, we might expect him to strangle the little girl and throw her in the water.

  In a surprising and morally uplifting turn in the story--but one devoid of didacticism--Otomo joins forces with the little girl and her 46 year old grandmother. The woman is very recognizably the kind of German who might have joined the Greens in their early days, although she is not political. She is just a "hippy" who not only is sympathetic to the less fortunate, but fascinated with all things African. After warming up to him, she tells Otomo that she is taking African dance lessons twice a week. Let's give him daddy's shoes, the little girl cries out when she notices his ragged sandals. At that point, the three march off to the little girl's parents' apartment where they drink coffee, dance to the music of Youssou N'Dour and try to figure out a way to raise money to help him flee Stuttgart.

  Eventually the two cops stumble across the group and the film enters its bloody denouement, one that will leave you feeling both angry and sorrowful.

  I saw "Otomo" immediately following a group of interesting short subjects, all but one of which evoked the same sense of misery and helplessness facing the African people. A seventeen minute South African drama titled "Aces" depicts the failure of a man who has just been released from a 9 year prison stretch for murder to escape the cycle of violence that led him there in the first place. Made in Chad, "Feminine Dilemma" is a graphic and disturbing 22 minute documentary about female circumcision. "Kauna's Way" is a 45 minute Nambian drama about the competition between high school girls over a scholarship to study in the USA. One of the girls, who is poverty-stricken, is literally forced to prostitute herself with the principal in order to win the award.

  The only upbeat film was "Thomas Sankara" which depicted the life and death of the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso. Against all of the odds put before him by imperialism and reactionary traditional institutions, Sankara was determined to make a place in the sun for Africa's desperately poor. Although his tenure was short-lived, his memory lingers on as demonstrated by this excellent 26 minute documentary made by Congolese film-makers.