The Education of Auma Obama: Toronto Review

Documentary about the President's older half-sister supplies some interesting family backstory but fails at making its subject compelling.

The documentary by Nigeria-born filmmaker Branwen Okpako gives alimited view of the life of Barack Obama's half-sister.

A dullish portrait of a figure whose doc-worthiness isn't well established here, The Education of Auma Obama offers a feel for the Kenyan side of the President's family that will interest only those with an unusual level of curiosity about him. Unlikely to draw viewers to theaters, it's most appropriate for educational TV.

Nigeria-born filmmaker Branwen Okpako starts cold, offering viewers no hint that there's anything remarkable about Auma Obama beyond sharing a father with the leader of the free world. Half the movie will elapse before we hear a single thing that makes the title character sound remarkable at all, and even then, Auma's intellectual accomplishments are more listed than explored.

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We meet Auma in Nairobi in 2008, as she prepares to visit the village of her father, the first Barack Hussein Obama, to watch election results with family members. The doc's most compelling storytelling has little to do with Auma -- anecdotes about the elder Barack and his stern, ambitious father paint a picture that is unhappy in terms of family dynamics but does suggest that sharp minds and driven natures run strong in the Obama bloodline.

Eventually we come to understand that Auma shares her brother's intellectual and political inclinations, but -- despite interviewing mentors, colleagues, and Auma herself -- Okpako doesn't communicate the meat of her work. She tells us that Auma studied linguistics, performed with a dance troupe, and works on social issues, but in an insubstantial way that (along with the subject's tendency to move restlessly around the world) might lead an unsympathetic viewer to decide Auma is more flighty than serious.

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The final third of the film offers some home movies of the younger Barack, as he visits his sister and explores his ancestral homeland. But the novelty of glimpsing Obama in this casual setting is small reward for watching the often dry material that precedes it.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Filmkantine UG Filmkantine UG in co-production with ZDF/ Das kleine Fernsehspiel and Branwen Okpako
Director: Branwen Okpako
Producers: Katrin Springer, Volker Ullrich
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Music: Jean-Paul Bourelly.
Editor: Branwen Okpako.
No rating, 79 minutes.