17 November 2012

Nigeria: Why I Did a Film On Obama's Sister - Branwen Okpako


Branwen Okpako was this year's winner of the AMMA Awards, for her movie 'The Education of Auma Obama' a story on the half-sister of the US President, Barack Obama. Okpako, born and raised in Nigeria now lives in Germany where she continues to make movies. The mother of two spoke about her work, her passions, and the women in her works, among others.

Weekend Magazine: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Branwen Okpako: I was born in Lagos, Nigeria to an Urhobo pharmacologist father and a Welsh librarian mother. My younger brother and I had a happy childhood on the beautiful campus of the University of Ibadan. I later attended the Atlantic College in Wales where I completed my International Baccalaureate, before going to the University of Bristol where I studied politics. After that I came to Berlin to study at the DFFB (German Film and Television Academy), here I met and studied with Tsitsi Dangarembga, Wanjiru Kinyanjui and Auma Obama. I have stayed in Berlin where I continue to make films and raise my children.

Where did the desire to go into films come from?

The decision to study film came from a desire to combine all my passions: painting, telling stories and directing actors, all of which I had enjoyed doing since I was very young. My dad always reminds me that I would put my friends in costumes and have them act plays in our garage when I was eight years old. But story telling runs in our family. My uncle Kpeha was a famous poet of 'Udje' (a form of sung-poetry in verse). Film seemed to synthesize these loves and has brought an added element that I didn't know about before--montage (which is the poetry of film).

How did you switch from politics to entertainment?

Politics and entertainment are very closely related. We spend a huge amount of our time being entertained either in front of the TV, watching VCDs or on the internet. I had studied politics because I wanted to affect the way people see the world and I quickly realized that art and film specifically were powerful tools to do just that.

In your experiences and encounters, what and or who has had the most impact on you and why?

My partner Jean-Paul Bourelly with whom I have been sharing my life for the past nine years has had a huge impact on me. He is an independent jazz musician who has chosen to live and work outside the mainstream musical industry, although he has the talent and technical ability to be a very successful mainstream artist. He has done this, because he insists on producing his own sound in his own way; and by so doing he has sacrificed financial gain for artistic integrity. I find that very inspiring and he has been able to give me a lot of practical tips on how to work independently and retain artistic control of my work.

Why did you decide on making the movie on Auma Obama?

Auma Obama and I went to film school together. She was always a very articulate and interesting person and we became good friends whilst in school. Telling her story gave me the chance to examine the modern post-colonial African experience from a woman's perspective. Auma's exciting and fascinating life story has a universal aspect that allows a whole generation, from our vast and incredible continent, to be illuminated. When her brother was becoming popular on the political scene in 2008, we thought it was the right time to tell our African Diaspora story in the context of a phenomenon that will be of great interest globally and from our perspective. She was a little reticent having to deal with the sudden media attention. We had to talk and bond and eventually made the film. I felt a little uncomfortable initially. But I knew I had to do it. After seeing her at work and her projects in Nairobi, I was all the more convinced I had to do the film.

What was the experience like for you?

It was a wonderful experience for me. To reflect on issues that affect me personally, to learn some new aspects of filmmaking and to grow as a person and as an artist. And all these at a unique and incredibly important moment in history, i.e. when Auma's brother Barrack Obama became the first ever African American President. When making documentary films, you have to get into the tide and follow it. Observe, listen and interact with all the elements there. The activism, the foundation she was trying to build and all of that. The question now was how to start. I decided we should start with the elections and capture the historic moment and her transformation from being Auma Obama to being sister to the US President. I went back to Berlin. Got a camera and a fantastic cameraman bought our tickets and we went to Kogelo which is her home town. We spent ten days there. I then went to the German Broadcast Corporation (ZDF), told them of my plan and they bought into it. Though Auma is very aware of the power of the media, she never tried to influence or stop me from telling the story I wanted to tell.

What part of the film is most exciting for you?

Hmmm, I love the movie a lot and there are parts of it that move me anytime I watch it. During the shooting, there was a moment when Barack Obama Jr. was named President and the instinctive reaction of the family is to go to the grave of Barack Obama senior to 'report' to him that 'we are going to the White House'. That was something. It said a lot and impacted on me a lot. As Africans we are not just us, we are ourselves and our ancestors. For me the connection with our ancestors and keeping the roots intact is the solution to a lot of our problems as Africans.

Story telling is something you seem to have been exposed to very early in life. What do you say about that part of Nigerian culture (the story telling culture) as it is exists today?

As a Nigerian and someone of Uhrobo origin, poetry and storytelling are deeply rooted in me. As I said, my uncle was a poet and my father would sing 'Udje' songs around the house often. My cousin Grace with whom I was raised would tell the most amazing stories about spirits and witches, which would always have a very powerful moral message and deep philosophical implications. Growing up in Nigeria automatically opens up the imagination at all times.

You are an Urhobo girl, with a Welsh mother, born in Lagos brought up in Ibadan now living in Germany. How do all these experiences impact on you professionally and personally?

I am a hybrid of cultures and influences and I wouldn't have it any other way, but of course that makes life complicated. You cannot ever choose one point of view or one side of an argument you are always aware that there is another way which is just as valid and just as lucid waiting to perceive the problem as well. I think it makes life more complicated, but at the end of the day, it makes for more interesting and complex work.

Asides making films, what else do you do?

I take care of my family. I have two children and I love to cook and keep house for them. Also I enjoy teaching. I have had the opportunity to teach courses at the Humbolt University and the University of Art here in Berlin. With the students, we examined my films and their themes using literature and academic texts. We discussed the medium of film and the way images are used to manipulate perception. Teaching is one of the most fun ways to learn, because you get to read and think about things deeply.In recent months I have also had the chance to give practical workshops with high school kids both here in Germany and around the world; in fact, I will be giving a workshop next week in Harare, Zimbabwe to young women filmmakers.

Practical workshops are a lot of fun too, because I get the chance to help people who have never made a film before, get stuck into the medium, jump in the deep end so to speak and express themselves, it is incredibly rewarding.

What are your views on Nollywood?

When I won the AMAA award this year for my film, 'The Education Of Auma Obama', I said then that the Nigerian film industry is a blessing for all Africans. In an industry so long dominated by Hollywood and European aesthetics, to have a confident, powerful and successful film industry in Africa led by Nollywood gives us all a home and adds complexity to the picture. I love it.

Is Nollywood an industry you are looking explore at some point?

I feel a part of it already, the Diaspora arm perhaps.

Which of your works have been the most challenging and why?

They have all been really challenging for different reasons. The first film I was commissioned to make for Channel 4 UK was about my own Welsh heritage. It was extremely painful for me emotionally, because it was about my own family and what my parents had experienced in 1960s Britain. But there was also so much love and trust given to me by family members and by my brother Edore who was the main protagonist of the film. Making 'The Pilot and the Passenger' about the poet Christopher Okigbo was also challenging, because I felt the issues around the civil war were still so raw and unresolved. I am yet to finish that film.

And Auma's film was also challenging, because I was making a film about the family of the United States President.

Your works mostly focus on women who have a lineage to Africa. Why have you chosen them as your subject matter?

Because that is who I am. My new film is about Christa Wolf. She is a German author from the former East Germany. But if you see the film, you will see an African connection. Of course, I am an African woman and I will always be personal in my approach.

Do you feel personally related with their stories?

Yes every story I tell is in the end my own story. Every artiste is talking about themselves opening their own hearts. That is the only authentic way to work.

Could you tell us about your movie on Christopher Okigbo?

I am still working on that picture. I started working on it back in 2006 and because of funding difficulties I have not yet been able to finish it on the level I believe it deserves. I am hopeful that 2013 will be the year I finally can present that work to the public. There are so many themes raised in that film that are very topical today in Nigeria. Again we are talking about complexity in identity. Nigeria has got a lot of painful issues to deal with and one must be very careful in negotiating that conversation.

How does filmmaking appeal to you?

Filmmaking is hard work and spiritually demanding work too. It is important for me to get some new understanding out of it for my own personal growth. I am not making films one-to-one about my situation. I know what it means to feel "other" I felt that growing up in Nigeria too.

With my work, I locate myself where I am geographically and spiritually, because my films are my witness to life as I see it. I consider it a great honour to be able to make films so I use every opportunity seriously. It takes so long to gather and order experiences and then translate what one has learned into a piece of work to share with others. This could take years.

Do you still paint and what kind of themes do you paint?

Yes, I do. Like my films, my pictures are my portraits. In fact, the poster for our film about Auma was a painting I made of her.

Do you see today's children on the University of Ibadan campus having the same benefits from the campus as you had?

My parents are long retired so they no longer live on the University of Ibadan campus, but when I visit there as I did recently for a television programme I made about myself for Deutsche Welle (German TV), I was once again enchanted by the beauty of the place. I imagine that growing up in such surroundings with the intellectual energy all around you, continues to inspire the present generation of kids for sure.

How are you able to combine the homefront and work?

I love taking care of my home and my family, but being a working mother is never easy, although, again I wouldn't have it any other way.

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