Why I made a film about Auma Obama

German-Nigerian filmmaker Branwen Okpako talks about her latest film, the issues it discusses and winning at the AMAAs.


Branwen Okpako won Best Diaspora Documentary at the 2012 AMAAs. Photo: Olawale Olori


For Branwen Okpako, making a film is not just about the narrative; generating discussions is essential to her craft as a filmmaker. Speaking after the screening of her award-winning documentary, ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ at this year’s iREP Documentary Film Festival, she discussed her work and what inspired a biopic about the sister of US President Barack Obama.

According to her, the title of the film, ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ derives from the unending cycle of education and interactions between us as a people, especially the African and his/her relation to the West. “It’s a constant dialogue around the idea of education,” Branwen said. But what her film basically set out to do was to explore people’s links with others in their lineage.

“I was trying to examine our relationship to our ancestors, in the sense that how much of who we are have we inherited from our parents and our grandparents? And ‘how much do we continue a journey that has been started generations ago?’ So, I think the reason why a biographical portrait was of interest to me (is that) if you’re trying to tell someone’s story, there are so many issues that you can shoot until you pick a theme that resonates with you. For me, (it was) the idea of a journey, an interaction and an attempt to communicate and create this whole concept of having inherited different responsibilities from our families and from those who’ve gone before us. The narratives and the education that we obtained from our ancestors also ends up directing us,” explained Branwen, whose film had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

Such education and influences in one’s heritage is obvious in how Auma like the father she shares with the US President, embarks on a journey outside Kenya to study abroad. There, she finds her voice and becomes something of an activist for pan-African issues. Just like her father was.

From one female filmmaker making a film about another female filmmaker, a dose of feminism was not to be omitted. In ‘The Education of Auma Obama’, we encounter a strong female lead, who is sister, daughter and mother. In all these, there is no restraining her intelligence and her self-expression. Despite references to her brother the president, the more popular Mr. Obama doesn’t steal the shine of his lesser-known sibling. With numerous female narrators as supporting cast in Auma’s journey, the power of the woman is not underestimated.

“As a woman, the role is different from that of a man. It was interesting for me to compare her to her brother in terms of what she can share and how she can do it as a woman, wanting to get married, have a family and be a woman in its own definition,” Branwen said.

Ironically, the script was born out of a desire to make a film about the sitting US president. Branwen however had schooled with Auma at the same German university, where both women developed a friendship. The obvious fact that she knew Barack’s sister more than she did him informed the decision to make the film about her. With this focus in mind, it was impossible to just make a film out of the blue or work with a tailored script. In the words of Branwen, “We are who we are because of someone else,” hence the visit to Kenya where an interaction with the Obama household spurred an interesting historical background to Auma’s becoming and her relationship with her parents, stepmother and half-brother.

I just had a list of people I wanted to talk to, to tell her story. This was their opportunity to share something: what are the important statements that seem to want to be told? The key for me is to listen, try to listen to them and filter out what they want to say.”

With the absence of the conventional voice-over, Branwen, who also wrote the film’s script, expects her audience to do the same. “I don’t really like voice-overs,” she said, “I like to let people listen for a long time to what the people have to say.”

Discussing another interesting angle to her film – there is a translation for almost every name and place – she gave a reason for this. “The names were very important to me, because as you know as Africans, when we name our children it always has a meaning. We make up to our names; we become who we’ve been named and to introduce somebody with their names and what their names mean is to also prompt the audience to think more deeply about this person.”

Many might complain though that they found the documentary too long. With four hours of footage and a year in the editing room, Branwen makes the most of the film’s eventual running time of 79 minutes. “If I thought it was better in one hour, I would have made it one hour,” she said, adding, “You’re not going to satisfy everyone with the stories you do.”

Love it or not, ‘The Education of Auma Obama’ has been largely successful at film awards and international film festivals. Since its first screening in Toronto, it has showed at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. The film also won the Viewers’ Choice Award at last year’s Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) and most recently won the 2012 African Movie Academy Award (AMAA) for Best Diaspora Documentary.

Of her latest award, the elated director said, “I am absolutely thrilled to have won the Best Diaspora Documentary film. If I would have told my parents as a child that one day I would win an African Movie Academy Award for a film about a wonderful Kenyan lady, who happened to be the sister of the first African-American President of the United States, they would have probably been astonished. But what has happened is beyond my childhood dreams and it shows how much the world has changed.”

Her reason for making the Auma Obama biography continues to be a driving force and her work still revolves around the connection between us and our ancestors, and finding the stories that deeply reflect this link.

“Our continent is full of wonderful people and stories to tell and I don’t want to speak too soon but I may be back in Nigeria very shortly to make a new documentary about some very inspiring people there.”

With Nigeria on her mind, Branwen Okpako lists Tel Aviv, Bologna, Kigali and Durban as the next destinations for her continued global run with ‘The Education of Auma Obama.’


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