Otto is a 17-year-old punk rocker who gets wrapped up in an investigation into his girlfriend Laura’s death. Angry and rebellious, he lashes out against his family and neighbors while relentlessly pouring through videos of her, trying to piece together clues about her final days. But as he struggles to make sense of her death, he also has to come to terms with the part he played in the tragic event.
“Otto the Barbarian” is the feature-length directorial debut of Romania’s Ruxandra Ghițescu. Produced by Alien Film (Romania) and co-produced by Polar Bear (Belgium), it world premieres on the recently launched VOD platform of the Sarajevo Film Festival, where it was selected for the official competition. “Otto” was developed in part through the Berlinale Script Station and Cinefondation’s L’Atelier in Cannes, and participated in Sarajevo’s CineLink Works in Progress last year. REASON8 Films is handling world sales.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, Ghițescu spoke to Variety about the appeal of coming-of-age stories, the real-life Otto the Barbarian, and the challenge of tapping into the perspective of an angsty teenage boy as a 40-year-old mom.
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Can you start by telling me a little bit about what inspired the film?
The idea of the film came when I was pregnant with my daughter. I think it came from that need of mine as a future parent to understand better that period of time of [being a] teenager, and coming of age, which really left a mark on myself. I think it was a time that I remember being very lonely, and not connecting with my parents. So I think that was the need to go back to that time and to understand the perspective of a teenager.
Why did you choose to tell the story of a young man’s coming-of-age instead?
I identified with [the real-life] Octavian Albu, who was Otto the Barbarian. He had this nickname, and he was the lead singer in a punk band in Bucharest in 2010. [Albu is also credited as the movie’s music director.] I identified with a lot of his perspective on life that I read in interviews, and on Facebook. For me, it was quite hard to have this kind of violent hero as a female, because it needed so much more explaining and contextualizing. This is why I chose not to have a male hero, but a male antihero. The story doesn’t happen to Otto; the story happens to Laura. And he’s just sucked into this event. He’s not the hero, or the negative hero. He’s just the individual who’s not really living the story, but is part of this event.
The film’s protagonist, Octavian, is Otto to his friends; Tavi to his parents; and, in his more defiant moments, he refers to himself as “the barbarian.” Did you want those different names he goes by to reflect the different aspects of his personality, the pieces of his identity he himself is trying to resolve into a single whole?
Yes, it was the intention to show the different projections that people have on him. I think [as] teenagers, we have to fit into the projections of our parents, or the projections of our friends, and there’s little left to find ourselves. It’s also a very fragile age where the external opinions matter so much, and we reflect ourselves in the way that others see us.
Marc Titieni, who plays Otto, has had a number of film and TV credits from an early age. How did you cast him for the role?
I saw him as a child actor in a few films. When I met him, he didn’t want to act anymore, because he was studying screenwriting. He was in his first year of film school. He really came only because I think his parents sent him to the audition. [Laughs.]
His real-life father, Adrian, who also plays his father in the film, is one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. Did you know right away that you wanted to cast them together, to tap into their real-world father-son dynamic?
I didn’t decide on the parents until I had Otto. I had a short list, because he was also the hardest character to find. I had a short list which I gave the casting [director]. I think we worked with three different fathers. But by the end, it was just a good fit to have them together. It was also a bit challenging, because it’s quite different from their relationship in the film. Adrian is a very loving father, and Otto is a very spoiled child. They have a total different dynamic in their relationship, so it was a bit of work to [establish] the new relationship. But in the end, I think you can also feel the love between the two of them. That adds something to the story.
Coming-of-age stories, and specifically teen dramas, are a staple of American film and television. Is it common to see these stories on screen in Romania?
Can I give you a larger answer to that question? [Laughs.] Through all the work on the script, it was more than once brought to my attention that maybe it could be better to have the perspective of the social service worker, which would have been the perspective I was most comfortable with, coming from this neo-realism school here in Romania. That would have been the easy choice. At the same time, I’m very much aware of the fact that the filmmakers that do films are another age than the public that goes to the mall. We present films about middle age in an environment that attracts teenagers. It is a new wave now, to do this kind of teenage comedies in Romania, that become blockbusters and box office successes.
It was a challenge for me to somehow reflect the realities of contemporary teenagers. I tried to work with as many teenagers as I could in order to give some of the reality to the situation. It was quite hard not to have the perspective of a 40-year-old woman, on a 17-year-old boy, edited by Dana Bunescu who is in her late 40s, filmed by Ana Drăghici who is also in her 40s, and also a woman. We kept close with real people…just to have this kind of originality and reality in the whole story, and not have our projections of how we think things would be.