In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, the Gene Siskel Film Center has canceled its two scheduled screenings of Bob Hercules and Keith Walker’s 53-minute video Senator Obama Goes to Africa, part of this month’s “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series. Barbara Scharres, director of programming, says she thought the movie was a natural for the series when she chose it last year; back then Obama was still a long shot for the Democratic nomination and the movie was new work by a local filmmaker of note (Hercules codirected the highly regarded Forgiving Dr. Mengele). But now that Obama has the Big Mo, the Art Institute of Chicago, which runs the Film Center, has concluded that exhibiting the movie two weeks before the Illinois primary would be a partisan act that violated its nonprofit status. “Given the timing of the presentation of the film, it could be perceived as supportive of a particular candidate,” reads a statement from Maria Simon, the Art Institute’s legal counsel, “although I understand that was not GSFC’s intention when this was scheduled.”
The movie, which screened as a work-in-progress at the Chicago International Documentary Festival last April, is a rather dry but nonetheless illuminating look at the freshman senator, already an international star, as he tours the African continent in August 2006. The movie begins in his father’s native Kenya, where Obama and his wife, Michelle, pay a visit to his grandmother in the village of Kisumu. His father and grandfather are buried near his grandmother’s house, but any possibility of introspection is squashed by the mob of reporters trailing him. Obama’s official duties limit his visit to a mere half hour, and he expresses disappointment that his children can’t get a sense of the place where his father grew up “without the hoopla.”
Excitement surrounds Obama even at that point, and to his credit he takes advantage of it to call attention to problems. In Kenya he and his wife get tested for HIV/AIDS, and in a speech he denounces the country’s political corruption. From there the Obamas travel to Kibera, a gigantic slum on the outskirts of Nairobi that Obama first became acquainted with when he toured the continent by auto with his sister, Auma, in 1987. In Chad he visits a camp for Sudanese refugees and hears stories of Janjaweed atrocities, and in Cape Town, he criticizes the South African ministry of health for its inadequate response to the AIDS crisis.
The most dramatic sequence shows the senator taking a boat ride to Robben Island and inspecting its former maximum security prison with African National Congress leader Ahmed Kathrada, who was sentenced alongside Nelson Mandela in 1965 and spent 18 years there. The two men look at the tiny cell where Mandela once lived, and Obama recalls that his first political experience was participating in the antiapartheid movement in the U.S. during the late 70s and early 80s.
According to Paul Marchant of First Run Features, which has acquired Senator Obama Goes to Africa, there are no further plans to exhibit the documentary, but it’s been released on DVD and a five-minute clip can be accessed on YouTube.