A Kenyan filmmaker is causing a stir in the US with her controversial documentary about tensions between African-Americans and Africans living in the US.
Ms Peres Owino recently won an award at the Seattle International Film Festival for Bound: Africans versus African-Americans. It was honoured by attendees at the West Coast city’s festival as the best movie made by a female director.
She explores the two groups’ cultural conflicts and misunderstandings through a series of testimonials.
“Some Africans say they are perplexed by the prevalence of crime and drug abuse in black American communities. And African-Americans wonder why Africa remains so poor and underdeveloped. They also express resentment at Africans ‘for selling us into slavery’,” Ms Owino tells the Sunday Nation in a telephone interview. She suggests that these deep-rooted differences reflect contrasting forms of identity.
“Race is the default setting for African-Americans,” she says, noting that centuries of discrimination and oppression at the hands of whites cause black Americans to view US society through the prism of skin colour. For Kenyans and many other Africans, Ms Owino states, “ethnicity is the default setting.”
And tribal identities matter not at all in Los Angeles, the city where Ms Owino has lived for the past 16 years.
“My being a Luo is of no consequence in the US,” she says.
Ms Owino excelled academically in Kenya, winning a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, a north-central US state. She studied social change and development despite her father’s desire that she become a lawyer.
“Secretly, I was studying theatre and the performing arts because that was my real passion,” she says.
And she was so committed to making a career in those fields that she hitch-hiked 2,000 miles to LA after completing her studies in Wisconsin. “I had $10 in my pocket and was living on the floor of people’s homes,” Ms Owino recalls. She also remembers telling her mother, Rosemary Owino, the owner of a restaurant in Kisumu, that “this city is not going to defeat me.”
Ms Owino worked for seven years in the marketing department at Paramount, one of Hollywood’s top studios. She got acting jobs on the side and also wrote theatre pieces and screenplays.
One of them, Seasons of Love — co-written with her professional partner Sharon Brathwaite — was recently shown on a US television network. The made-for-TV movie has received an unprecedented 16 award nominations in an annual competition sponsored by the NAACP, the leading US civil rights organisation.
Although Ms Owino appears well on her way to stardom in the US entertainment industry, she says her creative endeavours have not yet made her financially independent. She works part-time as a script reviewer and all-around troubleshooter for RatPac Entertainment, a small Hollywood studio.
Ms Owino says she intends to stay in the US for now. “Here I’m at least able to say what I want to say,” she declares, noting, “I grew up in Kenya in the Moi era.”
“It’s good to be in a place where my ideas count,” she adds.
Ms Owino, who’s unmarried and has no children, does return to Kenya regularly to visit her family. And she’s impressed by what she sees happening in Kenyan cinema.
“It’s really come a long way,” she says. “It’s typical of Kenyans too in that they endeavour to be excellent in their film making. They won’t settle for less.”