Obama doc lacks senator’s charisma

By David Smith

Senator Obama Goes to Africa, a documentary-in-progress from director Bob Hercules, was screened at the closing ceremony of the Chicago International Documentary Festival (CIDF) at Doc Films on Saturday night.

The evening was sponsored by CNN and the Society for Arts. The president of CIDF, Christopher Kamyszew, announced that CNN had agreed to screen the winner of the Grand Prix Feature Film Award on Sunday night. He also said, to audience laughter, “We thank [CNN] for that, because they didn’t always like [the films that won CIDF awards in the past]. Three years ago they told us that the film was anti-American. So we suggested the First Amendment CNN Award…” The winner turned out to be The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, a feature-length documentary from Denmark.

Senator Obama Goes to Africa chronicles Barack Obama’s trip to South Africa, Kenya, and Chad last year. Hercules stressed that the film was a work in progress and that audience feedback would be solicited after the presentation. He also admitted that the film in its present form had no ending and that he would seek more interviews with the now-presidential candidate.

The main issue that emerged in the audience discussion was that of Obama’s authenticity versus what came across as the staged character of the proceedings. Obama laments the fact that he can no longer walk anonymously through the village of his ancestors, though he acknowledges it is his trade-off as a public figure. “The last time I arrived in my grandma’s village, there was a goat in my lap and some chickens,” he notes. We meet Obama’s sister, Auma, and his “granny,” who stays silent and appears uncomfortable in front of all the cameras. It is the senator who reveals her advice to him: “Watch out for reporters.”

The scenes with Obama’s family were problematic for many members of the audience. Most were concerned that the members of Obama’s family and the shots of his grandfather’s and father’s graves seemed to be nothing but props for him. Hercules pointed out that this was “a very public trip and [the massive publicity] was a huge frustration for us and for [Obama]…these trips can be shallow, but I do think he made the best of it.”

Keith Walker, the director of photography, further remarked that “if the press weren’t there, there would be no coverage, so it’s a double-edged sword.” Walker also noted the difficulty of competing with the massive amount of press coverage the event received, especially that of the African press corps, who are “ruthless and will fight you to get a shot.”

Other audience members noted that Obama hadn’t been running for president at the time, and that the present reality would shape people’s reactions to the finished product.

To me, Obama seemed unsure of himself in front of the unfamiliar crowd of Africans. The natural grace of his famous oratorical skills was lacking when he gave speeches in a formal setting. His language came across as particularly stilted when he lectured a large crowd in front of a mobile HIV clinic on the importance of getting tested. The sincerity behind the occasion was unquestionable, but the crowd (not shown) seemed restless and its impatient noise almost overpowered Obama’s P.A. monitors.

However, in Kibera, a village on the outskirts of Nairobi that is one of the largest slums in Africa, the senator appeared more comfortable during an impromptu speech with a megaphone. He announced, “You are all my brothers; you are all my sisters; I’m gonna go back to the United States of America and tell them how much I love the people of Kibera!” The crowd evidently liked this, and it is one of the few genuinely animated moments in the film.

The film is difficult to judge fully, because of both its unfinished state and the events in the presidential campaign that are yet to come. But it does seem like a worthy effort that will provide a glimpse into Obama’s personality and highlight the problems that plague Africa.