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E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of African and African/American Studies Niyi Coker put eight years of effort into directing “Ota Benga,” a short documentary chronicling the life and struggles of the titular historical figure. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Out of approximately 50 films shown at the International Film Festival London 2016, “Ota Benga” brought home two awards for the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

For their work, Niyi Coker and Joel Glassman won Best Director of a Short Documentary and the Scientific & Educational award, respectively.

“Ota Benga” recounts the experiences of Benga, who was put on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis as a missing link in human evolution. Coker believes Benga’s story should not be forgotten.

“It’s a real-life story that needed to be told about a place and time when evolution experiments were conducted, and we need to understand its impact on humanity,” he said.

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On Feb. 26, Niyi Coker (second from left) attended the International Film Festival London’s Red Carpet Awards Evening and accepted the award for Best Director of a Short Documentary.

Glassman and Coker see the awards as a confirmation of the eight years of work they, and a dedicated team of UMSL-based filmmakers, have put into the production of “Ota Benga.”

“It’s a validation of the diverse work that the International Studies and Programs does at UMSL,” said Glassman.

When it comes to advice for future filmmakers, Coker offers a couple of gems.

“Be open to learning new and ever-evolving film technology, and never give up,” he said.

As “Ota Benga” continues to garner attention, Coker and Glassman keep an eye toward their next project – the life story of Miriam Makeba, a 1960s civil rights activist and songstress.

“We are working on Miriam Makeba’s story as a musical in conjunction with the University of Western Cape, which is celebrating a 30-year partnership with UMSL. In this production the ISP is also working with the Makeba Family Trust,” said Glassman. “The production opens in Cape Town in May 2016 and comes to UMSL in September. We are proud to say we also secured Carnegie support for this production, which will be the first-ever theatrical work at and by the University of Western Cape in South Africa in 50 or more years.”

Besides producing award-winning, original films, International Studies and Programs also houses the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, which is entering its 10th year.

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Ron Austin

Ron Austin

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