Before watching The Education of Auma Obama, the 2011 documentary about President Barack Obama’s Kenyan-born half-sister, it’s hard to understand the meaning of the title. After watching it, it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Does it refer to the first half of the movie, which traces Auma Obama’s life growing up in Kenya, and her years studying in Berlin? Or to the end of the film, which shows how Auma has become an educator herself? Or to something else entirely?
But after talking to the film’s director, Branwen Okpako, who will participate in a Q&A at the film’s screening at the Nickelodeon on Wednesday, Feb. 10, it’s clear which of the many possible meanings she intended for the title: all of them.
“There was this constant theme of education,” says the 46-year-old Nigerian-born director. For one thing, she first met Auma Obama in film school in Berlin. Then, besides Auma’s formal education and personal discoveries documented in the film, the title reflects the cross-cultural education that Auma gets about Germany and America, and that her brother Barack gets about his Kenyan roots.
Okpako even had the 1983 Michael Caine film Educating Rita in mind—and in fact considered calling the documentary that, since Auma changed her name from Rita.
“And of course,” says Okpako, “Lauryn Hill and the idea of miseducation.”
That’s the kind of filmmaker Okpako is: a post-modernist modernist, open to all interpretations and themes, while crafting a solid narrative that never gets lost in any of them.
That narrative is particularly interesting in the way it does not begin, as many documentaries desperate to establish their subject’s worthiness would have, with news clips of the president or something else to cement Auma Obama’s ties to him in the minds of the audience. Though we do hear about the upcoming election (Okpako was in Kenya shooting for the 10 days leading up to the 2008 presidential vote), we don’t even see an image of President Obama into an hour in. Instead, the Barack Hussein Obama we learn about is the president’s father—The Education of Auma Obama starts at his grave, a site that will become incredibly important later in the film. When the family returns there after the election results are in, they dance around his grave and sing “Daddy, we are going to the White House.” It is the most powerful scene in the movie—and was the most powerful scene to shoot, as well.
“Our cameraman was so overwhelmed he could hardly hold the camera,” says Okpako.
But the most important thing is that we always learn about these characters in relation to Auma herself—Okpako never lets her story be eclipsed by the fact that her brother is the most powerful leader in the world. It’s possible that was made easier by the fact that she met Auma in the ’90s, before he was.
Some filmmakers, a Michael Moore or Werner Herzog, would probably have put themselves in the role of the onscreen personality who revisits many of the important spots in this story, interviewing people who were involved, but Okpako lets Auma herself drive the action, while the director remains offscreen.
“Once I convinced her to do it, she was open,” says Okpako. “She’s a filmmaker. She understood what I needed in terms of freedom.”
Okpako saw her own role in the narrative much differently. “I try to represent the people watching,” she says. “I am there to be the audience and ask the questions they would have.”
‘The Education of Auma Obama’ will be shown at the Nickelodeon at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10. There will be a Q&A with director Branwen Okpako. Tickets are $10.50. Okpako will also give a ‘Living Writers Talk’ at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11 at the Humanities Lecture Hall at UCSC, which is free and open to the public.