Reviewed by Christy Karras
(from the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival)
Directed by: Eliaichi Kimaro
Written by: Eliaichi Kimaro and Eric Frith
Featuring: Eliaichi Kimaro, Sadikiel Kimaro, Young Kimaro, Awonyisa Ngowe and Ndereriosa Shao
Creating a documentary often involves long journeys down twisting paths that may change as they go. In “A Lot Like You,” Eliaichi Kimaro starts off meaning to tell the story of her father, who left Tanzania in the 1960s to study in the United States and spent most of the next 30 years abroad. But her film takes a sudden and unforeseen turn toward something tougher yet much more rewarding.
Kimaro’s original premise is interesting enough, if not hugely dramatic: As a boy, her father earns top grades and aces a national exam that qualifies him for a chance to study abroad. While in the U.S. earning a Ph.D. in economics, he falls in love, to both their families’ surprise, with a fellow student who is Korean. The couple sets up life in the suburbs, he working for the IMF and she for the World Bank.
So far, so good. The film tells of her parents’ culture shock (magnified by the turbulent era in which it takes place), their many successes and their world travels, including visits to Tanzania every two years.
Kimaro, their daughter, is the beneficiary of their migration. When the film opens, she works for a nonprofit and has just married her white American husband. But she never feels completely at home in the U.S. — and neither do her parents, who decide to retire in Tanzania. Kimaro takes a year off to film her father’s reintegration into African life, traveling to his homeland to interview him and the siblings he left behind.
When they’re interviewed together, the siblings’ stories are a bit short on details. What is there to say, really, about your brother’s rise to prominence on the global stage while you stayed home in a place where annual incomes are measured in hundreds, not thousands, of dollars?
But when Kimaro talks privately to her father’s sisters, the story changes: Even though one of them earned the same grades and passed the same tests as their brother, their parents kept both sisters at home. Forced into physically and sexually abusive marriages, they were not allowed to escape. Their trials matched their brother’s triumphs.
These dramatic revelations force Kimaro to refocus her narrative and revisit what she chooses to reveal about her own childhood, which, it turns out, was not as idyllic as it at first appears. This sharp shift is the best thing to happen in the film, which at once becomes more personal and more universal as it addresses violence against women and the ways in which families are fractured and heal.
This is Kimaro’s first full-length documentary, and she’s dealing with tricky subject matter. Given all that, the film is a remarkable success despite some weak moments and unanswered questions.
Kimaro learns that she is not the only one in her family who feels like an outsider: Everyone does, and her own multiracial daughter might too. But as her father says, reconciliation comes in not only comparing yourself to your ancestors but in considering your place, and your children’s place, from the perspective of the future. If you look at it that way, there might be hope for all of us.