Writer-in-Residence Tackles African Diaspora, German Identity Through Film

L. Schumann

Branwen Okpako, the Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence for fall 2015, first became friends with Auma Obama when they both attended the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. When Auma Obama’s half-brother, Barack Obama, began his presidential campaign, Okpako used this opportunity to make a film about Auma Obama that could broaden the discussion about the African Diaspora through anecdotal narrative.

This project, which took Okpako to locations including Kenya, Germany, Britain and the United States, became the documentary The Education of Auma Obama, which will be screened at the Apollo Theatre on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. When the film premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Okpako recalled a critic wrote that her portrayal of Auma Obama was too loving.

That criticism of her film as “too loving” may have missed the point. Okpako sees objectivity as an impossible ideal. She aims to treat the self-perceptions of her subjects as inherently valid. This is not to say that she would not challenge her subjects’ views, but she seeks to be conscious of the power she has to frame the people in her films. She intends to give her subjects agency.

During fall 2013, Okpako was a Visiting Professor of the German department at Earlham College and spoke at a different college nearly every weekend. German Faculty-in-Residence Marina Jones, whose scholarly work focuses on Afro-German history and identity, invited Okpako to screen several of her films in concurrence with Jones’ class, Transnational Connections: Afro-Germans in a Global Context.

Associate Professor and German department chair Elizabeth Hamilton and Professor of German Steve Huff were deeply impressed by a screening of The Education of Auma Obama. Hamilton was particularly taken with the way Okpako illuminated her own work in the question and answer session after the screening. “She communicated beautifully, … and she really opened up the discussion,” she said. “Professor Huff and I looked at each other and we kind of nodded and we said, ‘Let’s go ask her!’ We almost knocked her down as she was leaving.”

Okpako is the first filmmaker to fill the post of German Writer-in-Residence at Oberlin. Given that the position was created specifically to bring in a writer, Hamilton said that the department had to check with the Max Kade Foundation, which funds the residency, about the choice of a filmmaker. Hamilton emphasized the strength of Okpako’s written works. In addition to writing screenplays and writing about her films, Okpako has written theater pieces.

Okpako sometimes refers to her films as biographical portraits. “I really want the person who’s being portrayed to be the most memorable aspect of the work, even though there’s a lot of political issues being discussed,” she said.

A number of Okpako’s films are portraits of East Germans. Dreckfresser (Dirt for Dinner) is a portrait of Sam Meffire, the first Black policeman in the former East German state of Saxony. Tal der Ahnungslosen (Valley of the Innocent) was named after the easternmost areas in East Germany that did not receive West German television signals. It focuses on a woman who investigates her family’s involvement with the East German secret police. Fluch der Medea (The Curse of Medea) investigates the life of the author Christa Wolf, one of many prominent East German writers to hold the Max Kade German Writer-in-Residence position at Oberlin. Okpako respects the way Wolf ’s voice comes through in her novels, calling her a “visionary.” Okpako keeps a similar authorial imprint on her own work.

Okpako spent much of her childhood around the campus of the University of Ibadan in southwest Nigeria, her father’s home country. She completed her International Baccalaureate at Atlantic College in Wales, her mother’s home country. She then obtained a degree in politics from Bristol University in England. By the time she graduated from the German Film and Television Academy, she had a family in Berlin, so she stayed there. However, that is not the only reason that Okpako continues to live and work in Germany. She said that as an artist, one wants to feel needed, like a farmer is needed to tend the land. Germany was where she felt her work was needed.

Okpako said she is drawn to East Germany and its history not only because it is her current home, but also because the post-East German experience is in some ways comparable to the post-colonial experience. After East and West Germany reunified, East Germans were required to learn West German culture — from grappling with different phone booths to the capitalist economy — in order to get by. There were no such hurdles for West Germans, Okpako noted.

Okpako describes her short film LoveLoveLiebe as somewhat autobiographical. The film follows a Nigerian woman, Fatima, and her white German lover, Hans, against the backdrop of the German reunification, a time when racist hate crimes were on the rise. Hans worries about how uncomfortable and unsafe Fatima feels in her new home.

Landing, another of Okpako’s short films, centers on a Black woman in Berlin who discovers one day that she has become invisible. Throughout her work, the filmmaker defines visibility as the ability to define yourself and be seen in ways that you want to be seen, specifically as it relates to the Afro-German community.

Jones recognizes the necessity of Okpako’s work in Germany. “[It’s needed] to broaden discussions about what German identity means,” she said.

Hamilton sees the importance of Okapko’s art as well. “Germany gives the world the very best and the very worst thinking on human identity, social identity and belonging,” she said. “Germans have always asked themselves, ‘What does it mean to be German?’ And they have always used the arts to pose that question. … The arts are perhaps the best medium of all to engage in self-reflection. Branwen Okpako holds up a mirror to Germany. She is a person who has come from abroad and yet who is very much an integral part of Germany … We see in her work moments from which we learn what does it mean to be German, what does it mean to be European, what does it mean to be human? We need her, because we’re looking at those questions too.”

Okpako sees teaching her films as an extension of her process. At weekly public screenings on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. in the Kade House lounge, she introduces her films and leads a discussion with her audience.

Okpako started to teach her own work gradually after seeing how her films were taught by others. She disagreed with professors who taught her films as anthropological studies, showing Afro-Germans in a different light from reality. “It’s difficult to make generalizations about a whole group of people or a whole complex culture based on the bits you’ve shot on film,” she said. “I’d rather focus on the individual biographies that I’m trying to portray and bring them to life as much as I can. …There are many more things that are actually in common about the way we live and the conflicts that we encounter, and I think that gives us more back; to be able to see ourselves in people who don’t necessarily look like us, than to see difference in people who don’t.”