Review

The film is screening again at the New York African Film Festival Monday, April 16, at 2pm.

H

ow many sisters does President Barack Obama have?  The answer is two.  America already met one, Maya Soetoro-Ng, in 2008, when she appeared on various U.S. television programs.  A recent documentary now on the film festival circuit – The Education of Auma Obama — is introducing America to his other sister, Auma Obama. The 80-minute film provides a rare entrée into the president’s African genealogy and into his relationships with his African relatives. It includes touching video footage and photographs of the president’s first two encounters with those relatives.

A year older than president Obama, Auma Obama is a child of Obama’s father, Barack Sr., and his first wife, Kezia.  The film traces Auma Obama’s biography with a recurring focus on the development of her political identity. Born in Kenya, she lived much of her adult life in Germany and the UK,but has since returned to Kenya and is now running a foundation.

We see her evolve from a young girl struggling with her parent’s marital problems to a public intellectual and activist who challenges media stereotypes of Africa and champions youth development. We see her debating contentious subjects like the politics of development on television programs in Europe. We also learn about the stifled political ambitions of Barack Obama’s father, an economist who wanted to help Kenya grow, but died young in what is portrayed as a mysterious car accident.

Branwen Okpako, a Nigerian born filmmaker who has directed 5 films, is the director of the film. She was able to gain unprecedented access to the Obama family and their archives because she and Auma Obama are friends who attended film school together in Germany. The film consists mostly of her interviews with Auma and her friends and relatives as far away as England.  Mixed in occasionally are old photos of the family and the occasional archival footage.

The film is well-shot and well-produced. And the music is excellent. But the real strength of the film is its subject, Auma Obama.  With a warm smile, dark skin, a wide face, and intense eyes, she wears her hair in braids and locks. She is intelligent, charismatic and thoughtful, outspoken and well-spoken.  She appears both fierce and kind.  Her intense, serious but kind personality drives the film and guides us through an understanding of the president’s roots.

The film had some narrative gaps.  We’re left uncertain what years she lived abroad, attended various schools, and whether she obtained the PhD she was studying for in Germany. Based on the Q & A after the film, some of these gaps are on purpose.  When asked about one of the gaps, Okpako responded that she would like to let the film do the talking and leave it for the audience to interpret.

President Barack Obama’s absence looms over the film as much as his presence.  A life-size cardboard cutout of candidate Obama is shown at the family compound in Kenya.  While he could not be with them on election day, during his victory speech, we do hear him personally thank Auma for her love and support.



About the Author

Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey is an engineer 9-5, but in his spare time he writes about music and cultural history. His work includes "'Mercy, Mercy Me, The Ecology': Environmental Themes in Black Music" and "Hidden from Sight: African Americans and the Wilderness", presented at the annual conference of American Society of Environmental History, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. He is currently working on a book based on his master's thesis, "Wilderness, Race, and African Americans: An Environmental History from Slavery to Jim Crow." Michael lives and work in New York, NY. He currently resides in East Harlem with his wife and splits his work time between offices in Queens and Manhattan. He enjoys bicycling, listening to music, and playing soccer.