The Story of Obama's Kenyan Sister

A documentarian discusses The Education of Auma Obama and how families shape our identities.

Branwen Okpako (Courtesy of Branwen Okpako); Auma Obama
(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

"I don't know if he's seen it, but I do know that he's requested a copy and that it was delivered to the White House and received," said Nigerian-born filmmaker Branwen Okpako on whether or not the president has seen her most recent film, The Education of Auma Obama, about his older half sister.

Auma, whom Okpako describes as "mellow, enlightened and insightful," is a brilliant scholar who studied linguistics and contemporary dance in Heidelberg, Germany, before enrolling in film school in Berlin in 1992, where she first met Okpako. Auma eventually moved back to Kenya to help young Kenyans develop into community activists.

The film is an intimate portrait of her life -- her education, beliefs and politics, as well as her relationship with both her father and her half brother. But it is also about the complex histories that make us who we are; the traits that we inherit from our families that shape our identities, beliefs and desires.

After a screening at the African Film Festival in New York earlier this month, The Root spoke with Okpako about her project, what it was like to film her friend and what she wants people to know about the Obamas.

The Root: How did this movie come about? What made you decide to do a documentary on Auma Obama?

Branwen Okpako: My films are all personal to my own experiences. I've made both documentaries and fiction films about identity, place, belonging, representation and visibility. These themes were always present in my films because of being Nigerian, going to school in Germany and having a mother from Wales.

The whole multicultural experience has very much been part of my life, and I tried to put that in my films. So I had a three-picture deal with a TV station in Germany and had already done two films. They asked, "Why don't you do a portrait about Barack Obama?"

There are so many aspects of his life that were of great interest to me. But with him, I would miss the personal thing because I don't know him, and he's such a public figure. I thought that better suited to me would be the story of Auma. Knowing the kind of understanding that she has, and her dynamism as a protagonist, I thought it would make a great film.

TR: Auma and President Obama's father, his life and his legacy, are featured prominently in the film. How do you see the three of them connected?

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