Otis Janam: Zippy Okoth tackles sexism, polygamy, alcoholism, and domestic violence

Dr Zippy Okoth who wrote Otis Janam. 

Photo credit: Photo | Pool

Otis Janam may not be Kenya’s first indigenous language film that’s been scripted and produced by Kenyan filmmakers.

But what’s certain after seeing the film’s official premiere last weekend at Diamond Plaza, Nairobi is that Dr Zippy Okoth wrote her best story yet after bringing us a series of wonderful stage plays, and short films producing them through her Legacy Film Lab.

In Otis Janam, which she produced with support from the German Embassy, GIZ, and the Kenya Film Commission, Dr Zippy with the Film Lab, includes a fascinating set of social and cultural issues, framed by the beautiful, wish-come-true love story. But it is complicated by everything from polygamy, alcoholism, sexism and domestic violence.

And while the film has been scripted and staged in Dhuluo, it’s got easy-to-read subtitles and a demonstrative cast, so the story is not difficult to understand.

And besides drafting, directing, and co-producing, Zippy also assembled a cast of some of the country’s best Luo-speaking actors. Their performances confirmed the commonly held point that actors speaking in their mother tongues convey greater authenticity in their performances. It liberates them to perform with greater freedom and inspiration.

That is clear from the moment we meet Otis Janam (Nick Kwach) and his best buddy Jarieko (Okal Michael). The two had been best friends since secondary school. They had been a trio of smart guys at school, but after graduating form four, Number three fled rural life at the lake and went to work in town.

Jarieko got a job close by, and Otis went back to the lake and took to drinking (not fishing), and was now known by local villagers as a lazy good-for-nothing sot who had once been a great fisherman but now is simply a lost soul.

Meanwhile, Jarieko has never given up on Otis. Instead, he tells him about an upcoming boat race, similar to one Otis had won many years before when he, had not just won; he’d broken records and been treated like an Olympic star by fellow villagers. But he hadn’t retained that status after he lost in later years and taken to booze.

The crazy thing about the upcoming race is that Api’s dad, Jatelo Okoth (Anthony Okoth) being the richest man in the village and the one sponsoring the race, is also giving the winner the incredible prize of his beautiful daughter, Api (Sarah Masese).

It seems obvious from here on out that Otis will now have a fresh incentive to gain back his once-powerful prowess to win the lovely Api as his wife.

But Zippy’s inclusion of Api as a prize to be commodified like a pot of gold or sack of potatoes is not so surprising in traditional culture. It foreshadows how and why women react near the end of our story. In any case, neither Otis nor Api had been married before, which had disturbed Jatelo, Api’s dad and Jarieko, Otis’ buddy.

Meanwhile, Api is an obedient daughter who does everything her father wishes. He wants his legacy as the one-time greatest boat race champion to be remembered in the grandson Api will have once she’s wed. She doesn’t yet know that to ensure he gets what he wants, he has organised the boat race, including her as first prize.

When Otis hears that she’s the prize, he suddenly regains his energy, enthusiasm for life, and desire to get moving. He eventually wins the race and they fall madly in love. But after three children and a busy, successful business of her own, she proposes he get a second wife. He is shocked as are we. He finally accepts her plan. But their consequences are painful and predictable.

It marks the turning point that will change her life altogether. For no longer will she be obedient and deferential to men. We see this after he’s gone back to boozing, and he’s even become a wife-beater.

After that, Api has a no-holds-barred attitude once she hears there’s another boat race the winner of which will win their own boat plus a big cash award. She secretly starts training to race and is joined by other village women whose boat finally wins the race. It’s a resounding success for women, especially African women including Dr Zippy herself.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.