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A film director’s take on tension between Africans and black Americans: ‘You have two kids and one has been kidnapped’

Kenyan-born actor, writer and director Peres Owino talks about her film "Bound," one of 60 featured at this year's African diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Director Peres Owino, in red head band, in a scene from the film "Bound: Africans vs African Americans." Her film includes scenes of African-Americans and Africans, each wearing masks, because they do not recognize each other. It shows Dec. 4 at New York's African Diaspora International Film Festival.
Director Peres Owino, in red head band, in a scene from the film "Bound: Africans vs African Americans." Her film includes scenes of African-Americans and Africans, each wearing masks, because they do not recognize each other. It shows Dec. 4 at New York's African Diaspora International Film Festival.Read moreHandout

The film Bound: Africans vs. African Americans opens with a scene of two small brothers playing on a beach as the sun sets.

In this "land of warm waters," the narrator begins, "two brothers born of the same mother" were inseparable, until one day "one of the brothers disappeared and no matter how hard the villagers searched, he could not be found."

Their mother spent her days looking out at the ocean, waiting. Before she died, she gave her remaining son a charge: "Look, wait, and welcome him when he comes home, for I know he will return to me."

Written and directed by Kenyan-born actor, writer, and director Peres Owino, Bound is one of 60 films featured at this year's African diaspora International Film Festival, running from Nov. 23 to Dec. 9 in New York, which explores the connections that people of African descent share — but also, the friction that exists. In Bound, the brothers are a metaphor for the descendants of Africans and African Americans who no longer understand one another.

Some films in this year's festival take on racial and identity issues, such as colorism, the internal group bias that shows preferential treatment for people with lighter skin; others highlight similarities of religious and cultural customs in Africa and the Americas.

Though Bound, which screens Dec. 4, explores divisions between Africans and African Americans —  the subject of a recent Inquirer and Daily News article — director Owino said it also offers hope for reconciliation. We talked to her about her inspiration for the film and how she chose to address it.

Was there a specific incident that happened to you that inspired "Bound"?

I came to the United States to study theater and the performing arts in 1995 [at the University of Wisconsin]. The first African American I met, I went up to him and asked him what country in Africa he was from. He said to me, 'I am from Chapel Hill, N.C., and you people sold us.'  But that comment brought two student groups, African students and African American students,  together. That's what really helped bring us closer together. There were so few of us that we kind of banded together.

Why does this tension exist between African Americans and African immigrants?

It's almost like you have two kids and one has been kidnapped from home, and they are having a conversation. And there's a wound that exists in the heart, especially of the people who were taken to the Americas. But there's a lack of acknowledgement of the damage that was done. This country doesn't want to fully acknowledge that a damage was done. This country doesn't want to fully acknowledge the enslavement of African people. Imagine you are the victim of a crime and the perpetrator said, 'I didn't do anything. You need to get over it.' People need to acknowledge, 'I hurt you and I'm sorry.'

At the same time, the film shows that people who remained in Africa had to deal with colonialism, which was a different kind of enslavement.

What motivated you to air the "dirty laundry" that many people say has been something of a hidden rivalry until recently?

I try to root myself in things that are honest. They may be uncomfortable, but they have to be honest. I've been thinking about this ever since I landed in the United States. I wanted to share what it meant to be African with African Americans. But first, I had to understand what it was like to be African American. You can't get into people's lives until you build a relationship.  So I made a conscious decision to have African Americans present in my life, especially African American women.  … We had representation from the diaspora  —  people from Africa, African Americans, from South America — we all came together to make this film.

Is it true that some African immigrants look down on African Americans?

The documentary spends about five minutes in the beginning with this tension. All this nonsense about how some Africans call African Americans akata [which means "wild animal"], and how some African American children called their immigrant classmates 'African booty scratchers.' I didn't want to spend time in that space. It's not productive. The reason why we were doing this nonsense is because we are ignorant of each other's historical experience and connection to one another.

It's about families being ripped apart and what was the experience of the brother who got caught up in enslavement, the lynching, the black codes, the Jim Crow, the entire experience.

We answer that question: 'Why didn't you people come for us? Why didn't Africans come for us? Well, [the Africans] were going through colonialism. How did these two experiences alter who those two people finally became? Why have these two brothers forgotten each other? That's really what the documentary is about.

We are two brothers who, through time, forget each other.

Decades ago,  in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there was a more positive relationship between Africans and African Americans. Black Americans protested the racist system of apartheid in South Africa.  What happened to that unity?

In the 1960s, there was a unified struggle. There was an understanding of the black experience: the civil rights struggle in the United States and the struggle for independence for African nations. The African realized he wasn't free, and the African American realized he was not free. We knew that to free one, we had to free each other. … Once independence happened, and once civil rights were achieved … we thought we had gotten what we wanted. No, you didn't. You got what you were allowed. Because civil rights were still violated. The Voting Rights Act was dismantled. Police are running around shooting black people. White nationalists are on the rise. What kind of freedom is that? And in Africa, whatever wealth comes out of African countries doesn't enrich Africa —  it enriches Europe and Asia.

The film's title includes "Africans vs. African Americans," yet also "Bound," implying that despite division, the two groups are connected. Was that intentional?

Yes. We are bound to each other, whether we fight with each other or not.  We are still bound to one another. We are supposed to find one another.

The poster for the African Diaspora International Film Festival, which runs from Nov. 23 through Dec. 9.