Branwen Okpako’s biographic portrait of a friend and fellow filmmaker is the story of another Obama doing great things. The film was the star screening at Day 1 of the 2012 IREP International Documentary Film Festival.
The Education of Auma Obama, is the story of a half-sister to the current President of the United States of America. The story is by itself an intriguing one and Auma is revealed as an intelligent student, mother, youth mentor and social activist. Even before it became fashionable to speak out against foreign aid, the documentary shows her as a strong voice opposing the West over-aiding Africa. Auma’s story is by extension the story of President Barack Obama. The father they both share comes across as a strong influence on his children, and is himself immortalised in the strides of these two children borne to him by different women.
The film is shot in the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential Elections when much attention is on the trailblazing American Barack Obama and his heritage. One unmissable influence in President Obama’s life becomes obvious: his father. It is the same with Auma. Though she reveals that her parents are not necessarily the best any child can hope for, there is no missing her father’s impact on her life. Her father, a Kenyan public servant was himself the son of a cook, who worked with a family of British settlers. But the older Obama made sure his son received an education that would set him above his peers. Barack soon got a scholarship to study in Harvard; a reward of the cook’s hopes for his son.
In Auma’s family though, the scholarship might not have been a good thing in itself. Barack does not return home alone after completing his study. He comes back with Ruth, an American woman whom he gives the task of looking after his children. Kezia, Auma’s mother is promptly given her matching orders. This is a turning point for the once-outgoing Auma as she dives into her shell and stays there till she herself leaves Kenya to study in Germany.
In portraying the making of Auma Obama, Okpako – herself a female filmmaker- employs many female narrators; perhaps also in a nod to women as oral conveyors of family history. Auma’s female relatives and friends all play prominent roles in analysing and retelling their experiences with Auma. It is impossible to separate the people in Auma’s life from the making of Auma herself. Okpako draws on excerpts from interviews with former teachers and colleagues as well and as we follow the characters through the 90 minutes, the audience itself receives an education based on Auma’s education.
Okpako’s approach to the story is hardly conventional. She gives the meanings of the names of the different dramatis personae. She employs no voice-over in the narration, leaving the audience to unravel the story and navigate it by itself. The interesting angle with the names hits home hardest when we find out that Auma’s birth name is actually Rita, which means Pearl. Her mother’s name Kesia means ‘sweet-smelling scent’, highly ironic considering her husband finds her repulsive when he returns with his new wife Ruth, whose name is translated as ‘friend’. The name Barack itself means ‘Blessing’ and Hussein is translated as ‘Handsome Man.’
The Education of Auma Obama is a well-researched effort that should not be watched in a hurry. What Okpako achieves with it is not another Obama Campaign flick but a story of true grit overcoming the biggest challenges and how our ancestry plays a role in who we are and who we might become.