Peres Owino from Kenya, settled in the United States after completing her university studies there. She discusses her experiences as actor and filmmaker, and her current documentary project which explores the sometimes tense relationship between Africans and African Americans.
Peres, what brought you from Kenya to the United States and what were some of your initial experiences?
I moved to the US, to Wisconsin to attend university. Everything about America was a cultural shock, from the automatic doors to cows to winter. The America I came to was not the America I saw on TV back in Kenya. Thanks to Hollywood, America was high life, manicured lawns, fast cars and faster women.
Ending up in Wisconsin, and living amongst "ordinary" men and women was almost surreal. I got to see a different and yet familiar side of Americans. That experience made Americans more like me and fostered in me a deep love for the Midwest. I cannot think of a better introduction to this country. See, too often we get lost in images in celluloid. We let our minds be shaped by fantasy and imagination, disconnected from the beauty of experiencing what is real. There is a realness about the Midwest. And it doesn't hurt that fall is gorgeous.
Your training is in theater and acting, and now you are undertaking filmmaking. What are some of your acting projects and how did you develop an interest in filmmaking?
I started in theater almost accidentally while in high school back in Kenya. My schoolmate, Bernadette (I still remember her name) forced me to audition for the drama club. Years later, I have had the honor of playing some of the great classical roles like Hamlet and Lady Macbeth. And this fall I am playing the most challenging role ever in Peter Barnes' "Red Noses" directed by Tony Winner Dominique Serrand. The Classics are great and all, but I also use this avenue to tell the stories of my people. In 2009 I wrote and performed my first original stage work, "Beauty For Ashes" which was my story and the story of numerous women. I followed that with "Cut" in 2010 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a story about two girls and the issue of genital mutilation.
Where film is concerned, I fell in love with cinema while watching The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a child. Unlike theater, there is something more lasting about film for me. And I speak as both an actress and a writer/director. I am a film actress because the world needs to see the African woman in many shades, not just as a rape/war victim. I applaud directors who share this idea; directors like Simon Brand who cast me in his movie Default, coming out in 2012. It was an amazing experience and he specifically did not want to play into the violent relationship between African men and women that you see out there. My most interesting film role, which wrapped 2 weeks ago, had me speaking entirely in Arabic. I have never been more grateful for being a Swahili speaker.
But all this creative energy steamed from my love of reading and writing. I was most overwhelmed when I held a hard copy of my first published book, On The Verge, in my hand.
Your subject of your current documentary project, “Africans versus African Americans: Healing the Silent Sibling Rivalry" is fascinating! There have been many debates, studies and much dialogue around it. I have discussed this issue with my African and African American students—among whom I have witnessed these misunderstandings! What inspired you to deal with this topic?
When I was in Kenya I studied the history of the Maafa (African Holocaust/Enslavement of Africans) extensively. I read the writings of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, Olaudah Equiano, the Slave Narratives and felt a pain inside me. I felt that somehow I had something precious to give to those who were denied it. And I promised myself that when I came to America I would give every African American I met, Africa.
But when I got here things weren't what I thought they would be. For one, it seemed to me that none of the African Americans I was encountering cared about Africa and it's "booty scratchers". I approached an African American student whom I "mistook" for an African (I wonder why) and was swiftly told, "I am not African, you people sold us." I was shocked. We began to dialogue and needless to say, we became good friends. Together, we integrated the African students into the Black Students Union. It became a place for Africa's children to meet and get to know each other. We were only 45 of us, so that was easy to do. On campuses like University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with huge African and African American populations the divide is accepted and remains. I often attended African parties in Whitewater and not once in five years did I see a single African American in attendance. And that is sad. That is the other side of the coin, the side we are most concerned about.
How will you contextualize this debate/issue in the documentary?
This documentary will look at those things that make us similar, what unifies us as opposed to what divides us. We can all agree we have been dealing with the latter for over 500 years.
The title itself which positions the two groups in opposition, using the word “versus” as well as “rivalry”, suggests that the film will focus on the tensions between them. Are you also hoping to use the film as a means of resolution?
The title seems to generate a lot of feelings, and that is a good thing. I want to work on something that makes people feel something. The film will inform, that is all a film can ever do. Resolution is up to those who view it.
Will it also be used as a teaching moment for Africans on the continent?
Our hope is that we get this done and viewed by the African Diaspora. For that to happen, we need the Diaspora to walk with us. We are currently fundraising and need donors, publicists, marketing gurus, friends of friends, network bosses, you name it. If we can get everyone to be a part of this, there is no telling how far up the hill we can move this rock. Anyone who wants to be a donor can visit our Indiegogo page.
In the meantime we have a Facebook page where others are already involved in the conversation. We encourage people to post relevant materials on there. The Facebook page is great because Facebook is accessible to the whole world. So, a young man in Gabon can dialogue with a young man in Harlem.
There has been a long history of people of African descent in the United States embracing Africa and Africans, let’s take W.E.B. Du Dois, at the turn of the 20th century as an example. And who, to note as well, is buried in Ghana. What has changed during the past century in your view?
It is interesting that you ask that question, because we are asking it. The visible bridge existed well into the 80s. African Americans helped the Ethiopians fight of the Italian invasion. Tom Mboya, a Kenyan Nationalist spoke at the March on Washington. African Americans are partly responsible for the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. We have always been a part of each other’s struggle and victories. What changed? I have a theory that is way too controversial to state here. It will only open a can of worms that I would much rather deal with after the documentary's release.
To what extent has the mainstream media and culture contributed to these attitudes about Africa?
I think the media has done a great injustice in its representation of people of African descent. If you believe the media, the only things living peacefully in Africa are the wildlife. I mean, who didn't want to be Timon and Pumba? "Hakuna Matata" But the humans are constantly battling famine, disease, poverty and themselves. It is depressing. But trust me when I say Simba is not the only thing living in bliss in Africa.
And lets not get into the portrayals of African Americans. They are narrowed down to entertainers, athletes, criminals and irresponsible fathers with a great slant on the latter. While in Kenya we were bombarded with the Jerry Springer show and OJ Simpson trial. Why? Why did a Kenyan need to see these? What else was going on in the world in 1995? Dr. Bernard A. Harris became the first African American to walk in space. WTO was established. A 6.8 earthquake hit Kobe, Japan. Norway and Russian almost had a grave misunderstanding. Mississippi FINALLY ratifies the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. The House of Representatives votes to cut taxes on Corporations. France resumes nuclear testing and launches a counter-coup in another country. I mean, more important stuff was happening. But the world needed to see this black/white murder story. We needed to watch the racial polarization of America.
That being said, we are too smart to blame the media. Taking personal responsibility means knowing better than to let the media form your judgments. Library cards are free in this country, go read a book, browse a computer, form your own opinions. Take everything with a grain of salt, question every opinion given to you as truth. The fact that no major media outlet is covering "Occupy Wallstreet" is proof that the media's role is to pump out the agenda of its shareholders.
How do African Americans get their information and formulate their attitudes about Africa in your opinion? Especially since most do not have the opportunity to travel to the continent or study about the countries and peoples in a manner that will allow them to have a realistic point of view. Even the historic election of Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, the U.S. media treated his paternal heritage in a very different way than his maternal one.
Mostly through the media, some by studying, few by visiting Africa. Most African Americans have not visited Africa not for lack of interest, but because the plane tickets are so damn expensive. With regards to the president, the disrespect awarded him is painful to watch. The idea of shouting "You lie" in Congress to the sitting president would never have occurred to any Member of Congress if the said president was of a paler hue. It shows America's continual struggle with the race complex.
Your company, Nyar Nam Productions, what is its mission and some of its projects?
The mission of Nyar Nam (Daughter of the Lake) is to tell great stories. Stories that I find fascinating enough to commit myself to for months. Our first project was "Beauty For Ashes", a play about my life, about walking through depression into self-definition. One of my firm beliefs is that by fighting my demons in public they stop tormenting me in private. Then the dark comedy "Cut", a play about two twelve year old girls on the night before their circumcision. Our third project is "Africans versus African Americans: Healing the Sibling Rivalry". The website is the hub for all things related to this project. Early next year I will spend considerable time promoting this documentary and my book, On The Verge. There may be room to shoot a short film, who knows?
Kenya is emerging as an important center for filmmaking in Africa. What role would you like to play in its success?
I would like to be both an audience member and a storyteller. I want to hear and see the tales as told by my people and join in the telling. Film is a team sport, you have to be both audience member and filmmaker.
Interview with Peres Owino by Beti Ellerson, October 2011