"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?
BO: I think that they, the Obamas, as a family have a specific characteristic. Every family has a characteristic. What is important to us in our family? What are the themes we push? What do we represent? And I think that with [the Obamas] this idea of civic responsibility, this idea of adventure and curiosity, are all present. It was even there with Barack Sr.'s father.
My father is a pharmacologist. He studied abroad and was a professor in the U.K. and got his Ph.D. He came back [to Nigeria]. He's an old man now, but he always says, "We have all these herbs and all these ways of healing ourselves, and we went away to get answers when the answers are all right here."
Who do they tell all of these things to? Us, their children. So we go on and take up the responsibility and say we have to do this, we have to do it better and live up to the expectations of our parents. And that's why we are the way we are. And that's why Auma is the way she is. That voice, her father's voice, is there in her ear, you know.
TR: What did you learn about your friend Auma while filming the documentary?
BO: I didn't know her life story. We had always talked about our politics and our ideas, but it was through making this film that I got to know her story. Her friends are like family to her. Her aunts are important to her. I learned of one of Auma's aunts, who is younger than Auma because her grandfather married a younger woman. She is the one who told the story of Barack Sr.'s death [in the film]. I learned so many things that you can't anticipate.
Even though I talk to mostly women in the film, her father's presence is there. I hadn't read President Obama's book until after I did the film, but look at the title: Dreams of My Father. There is something about the aspirations of our fathers. Anyone whose father was young at the beginning of the independence of African countries knows this.
Those guys were taught at a young age that they could take charge of their countries. The torch wasn't given to the old or to the experienced. It was given to the young. They were in their 30s when they took over their countries. They were full of dynamic ideas, and then of course the disappointment comes, the reality of politics and the global situation and so forth. And who gets to hear about how [disappointment] feels? It's the kids. It's us.
TR: Disappointment comes up quite a bit. What were you trying to convey to your audience about being let down?
BO: I don't see disappointment as a main theme. The main theme is empowerment. You can change the world. It doesn't have to be in some lofty position. Right in your backyard, with your friends, colleagues and young people around you — just sharing ideas and treating each other with respect and listening to each other and just trying to understand yourself. It's all a contribution to making [the] world a better place.
And Auma's story is all about a simple woman, a simple family. Even if you are president, you're just a simple person. Everyone is. Nobody is more than anybody else. No one is more important than anybody else. I feel strongly about this. Some people live in a village, but they are royalty in their own way. And there is nothing disappointing about that. That is wonderful.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is The Root's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.