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#15 – Devil Comes to Koko: An Italian Story

Posted on Apr 12, 2016 in The Wall | 0 comments

Foto Alvise Alessandro Crovato

#15 ˗ Devil Comes to Koko: an Italian Story

The history of the relationships between Italy and Africa is full of dark pages and tragically open dossiers, such as that concerning the homicide of Ilaria Alpi and Miran Hrovatin in 1994, in the news again these days after the clamorous retraction from Hashi Omar Hassan, the only man sentenced for the killing. Devil Comes to Koko, a medium length documentary by Alfie Nze, a 44 Nigerian expat in Italy since many years, with a background as playwright, theatrical director and actor, dares to shed light on an episode that has several elements in common with the context that brought to the murder of the two journalists, evoking again the role of Italy, since in this case the issue is again the trade in toxic waste towards a third country in an African country, namely Nigeria, in 1987. Obsessed by this story, that took place when he was still a teenager, Nze pieced together the events carefully, relating them to another historical event occurred a hundred years before in the same region, that is the British sack of Benin, in which a village chief tried courageously but vainly to stand up to the British colonial amry. The result is an interesting mix between documentary and fiction mediated through the theater, opening a possible new way in Italian migrant cinema.

Koko, Delta State, Southern Nigeria, 1987. A ship lands in the little river harbor of the village and starts to unload his poisonous content. A ten thousand bins containing 3500 tons of toxic, industrial and chemical waste, coming from Pisa, are stored and buried in a plot of land in the village. Apparently the documents are in order: the ship personnel has the consent of the owner of the land, a heir of Olunu, the most important family in the area, and even a declaration on the environmental impact of the operation. Over some of the bins you can even read “Gift of Italian Government”. Thanks to a denunciation coming from two Nigerian students in Italy and to a clamorous action organized by an Italian deputy, Enrico Falqui, with the complicity of an Italian RAI journalist, Rachele Gonnelli, the deposit happens to be filmed and the affair is revealed to Italian public opinion. After a long negotiation with the Nigerian government, the toxic bins together with tons of contaminated soil are loaded on to two ships, Karin B and Deepsea Carrier, and sent back to Italy. Nevertheless, the images that Nze filmed with a small local technical unit in Koko capture a spectral reality, almost thirty years after that tragic event.

The waste disposal site, declared off limits by the government, is a glade when a sick brown grass grows up. Nze and the cameraman risk to be hit by a caretaker and hardly arrive to explain they are there precisely to shed some light on this forgotten story that has ruined forever the ecosystem and economy of the entire region, that lived on fishing on the river and small business. The heir and actual owner of the site tells us the person who followed and authorized the deposit of toxic waste died soon after the restitution of bins, sick and exhausted for the pressures suffered: the company that took care of the traffic and the government promised compensation and rehabilitation works in the area but nothing happened and the villagers refused to leave the place, ignoring the enormous risks they would have taken, soon producing an increase in the number of natural abortions and cancers.

In Koko, Nze happens to discover another story, dating back to 1897 and related to one in the patriarchs of the same family, Chief Nanna Olunu: the man, although the evident inferiority of his troops, dared to challenge British colonial army invading Benin and was exiled, so that a statue has been erected in his honor. Back to Milan, in the highly suggestive space of Macao, the director stages a theatrical production, in which he superposes those two episodes of colonial and neocolonial oppression, suffered by the same village with an interval of a century, and mobilize a multicultural cast in which stands out Ivorian expat in Italy Rufin Doh Zeyenouin in the role of Chief Oba, having a relevant theatrical background – in these days he’s touring with a production of Bianco e nero, from Cormac McCarthy’s Sunset Limited – and appearing recently in successful comedies such as Quo vado?, starring comedian Checco Zalone, and Noi e la Giulia.

The genesis of Devil Comes to Koko was very long and troubled, although the director received in 2013 a 15 thousand Euros from Mutti Award, helping him to support the expense of shooting. In the summer of 2015 an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign was organized to launch the project but it didn’t raise the expected goal. A decisive intervention from Fabrica got to have the post-production finished and the film was premiered at Milan Museum of Cultures (MUDEC), in December 2015, and a week ago was presented at Festival of African, Asian and Latin America Cinema in Milan, being awarded with Galarte Prize 2016 at Rende, Calabria. The documentary suffers partially from the budget limitations, complicated by a restricted shooting time at Macao and unexpected changes in the cast, with the insert of some performer not exactly up to it, but in the economy of this part, some intuitions of great impact strike the audience, such as the symbolic association between the apple and the promise full of deceit bringing down so many Kokos in the African arena.

For all those reasons, Devil appears as a unripe but heartfelt notebook for a film to be done, with a maybe involuntary echo to Pasolinian approach to documentary. This said, it sounds fertile this mixing of travelogue, investigation film and filmed theatre, almost unprecedented in contemporary Italian panorama, with the exception maybe of Va’ pensiero by Dagmawi Yimer, concerning events closer to us and having a far more solid expressive balance. We have reasons to hail a new voice in auteur scene of migrant Italian cinema, one that brings a transmedia approach and a rather original combination of skills.

On top of everything, we stay with the perception that the black book on crimes of Italy and other former colonial powers in Africa, deploying a new chapter in this film, it has to be written yet. The very same connection explored by Nze between colonial conquest in the narrow sense and unprejudiced use of the continent as dumpster of industrial waste from Europe could be easily illustrated through several other episodes, in Somalia and not only, and still a mapping is far from being even sketched. Probably only the obstinacy of other first and second generation immigrant scholars, filmmakers and activists will enable the slow installation of a counterhistory global project so necessary and so uneasy for those continuing in Italy and in Europe to design a future of unredeemable dependency, ignoring the immense human and economic costs of this heinous strategy.

Contributors: Leonardo De Franceschi

Photo Credits: © Alvise Alessandro Crovato

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