Photo by Ines Johnson Spain, Cotonou, April 2009
Branwen, could you first talk a bit about yourself, your background, how you developed the desire to make films?
My name is Branwen Okpako and I was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a Nigerian (Uhrobo) pharmacologist father and a Welsh librarian mother. My younger brother and I had a happy childhood on the beautiful campus of the University of Ibadan.
I later attended Atlantic College in Wales where I completed my International Baccalaureate, before going to University of Bristol where I studied politics. After that I came to Berlin to study at the DFFB (German Film and Television Academy), here I met Tsitsi Dangarembga, Wanjiru Kinyanjui and Auma Obama.
I have stayed in Berlin where I continue to make films and raise my children.
The decision to study film came from a desire to combine all my passions: painting, telling stories and directing actors, all of which I had enjoyed doing since I was very young. Storytelling runs in our family. My father‘s brother Kpeha was a famous poet of Udje. Film seemed to synthesize these loves and has brought an added element that I didn't know about before—montage (which is the poetry of film).
You are Afro-Welsh, living and working in Germany. What have been your experiences both on a personal and professional level?
My experiences have been the experiences of a Diaspora person settling into a new environment finding her place and defending her ideas, trying to serve a useful function and at the same time educate herself.
Last year I had the most rewarding experience of teaching courses at the Humbolt University and the University of Art here in Berlin. With the students, we examined my films and their themes using literature and academic texts. We discussed the medium of film and the way images are used to manipulate perception. Teaching is one of the most fun ways to learn because you get to read and think about things deeply.
Much of your work has focused on Afro-European identities, a theme that several European women of African descent have addressed in their films. Could you give some reflections on this subject as it relates to your own work and as it relates to the broader issue of how Europe is dealing with its identity in an evolving multicultural, multiethnic continent? And also, there is an increasingly visible Afro-German community and of course, several of your films have focused on Germans of African descent. How do you locate yourself as an Afro-European?
I focus on experiences that resonate with me. Filmmaking is hard work and spiritually demanding work too. So for me it is key that I get some new understanding out of it for my own personal growth. I am not making films one to one about my situation. But I know what it means to feel "other", I felt that growing up in Nigeria too, so when I came to Germany and started to get to know the culture and the people, I was fascinated by the culture of the Afro-Germans and how they were working towards building an identity for themselves in an uncharted territory. The courage and resilience was inspirational and I found many universal themes to talk about that resonated with me. Now, I have Afro-German children so my involvement has deepened.
I locate myself where I am geographically and spiritually. My films are my witness to life as I see it. It is a great honour to be able to make films so I use every opportunity seriously. It takes so long to gather and order experience and then to translate what one has learned into a piece of work to share with others, it takes years.
If my films about Afro-German experiences help to enhance the visibility of Afro-German experiences, that is useful. One of my short films that was shown at the Berlin film festival in 2007 is called Landing it is about a black woman who wakes up in Berlin to find herself invisible. It's a horrible experience being invisible. But nevertheless being visible does not automatically mean being seen. So the process is still ongoing.
Your films are very intense and very specific, in the sense that they on a very emotional level, deal with the psychological, social and political gut of the society. How do you choose the topics of your films?
Maybe I have answered this question already, but I would just add that the subjects for all the films I have made, including the one I am currently finishing, came to me. I was asked to do them sort of by circumstance, by people’s expressed wish sometimes. Certainly with Dreckfresser, a friend came over to my house with a newspaper article and said " you need to make a film about this brother", so from a sense of obligation, from a feeling that not just I want to know more about what is happening but others do too. And I just start from that impulse.
Do you continue to work in Britain and connect with the British culture in terms of your work?
Wales is my ancestral home as is Nigeria but I never lived in Wales as an adult, the two years spent there were in boarding school.
But I got my first commission from Britain while I was still in film school. It was a short for Channel Four about my Welsh roots. The film, Searching for Taid, is available to watch on the British Film Institute website. That is the beginning of my journey as a filmmaker. My brother is the protagonist and the film is really lovely and people get something out of it.
Since then I have not had the chance to make another film in Wales but I have a story. If it wants to be made it will come and get me.
Do you have contacts, connections with Nigeria? Have you had film projects that you would like to do in Nigeria?
My parents are there as I said, so I visit with my children whenever I can afford it. I have also made a film there in 2007 called "The Pilot and the Passenger" it is yet to be fully completed (it is self funded) because my current project (a commission) interrupted it, but I will be finishing it soon. It is about the poet Christopher Okigbo.
Some reflections on future projects, interests?
For the past two years I have been shooting a highly demanding documentary in Kenya, Germany, Britain and the USA it is nearly finished so I hope to share it with people soon.
My interests are painting and teaching, as well.
Interview with Branwen Okapako by Beti Ellerson, August 2010