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IDFA 2018

Review: Sakawa

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- Ben Asamoah's first feature-length documentary reveals a whole industry revolving around internet dating site scams, from the perspective of the perpetrators in Ghana

Review: Sakawa

Belgian filmmaker of Ghanaian descent Ben Asamoah's first feature-length documentary, Sakawa [+see also:
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, which has just world-premiered in the IDFA's Luminous section, tackles the hidden industry of internet scamming, efficiently giving the audience a chance to formulate its own questions about the economic, religious, environmental, historical and ethical aspects of the subject matter.

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"Sakawa" is a Ghanaian term for internet fraud schemes that are often combined with religious rituals. The film opens with a scene in which the camera zooms out from a dating site on a laptop screen to reveal a room with about a dozen young black men on their computers, bare walls with a couple of TV sets and a tattered Real Madrid flag. Here we meet the first of our protagonists, OneDollar, one of many youngsters in the country who live off scamming Westerners. His goal is to earn at least $40,000 from the practice and move to Italy to start up his own farm.

On a personal level, it is easy to understand why people in such a poor and exploited country resort to “sakawa”. Young single mother Ama can barely make a living out of selling fruit at the market, so she asks Francis, an experienced scammer, to teach her how to "work the clients".

The members of this community of fraudsters exchange experiences throughout the film, which provides some of the most amusing moments. While "the UK and Belgium are not working", and "Canadians are full of deceit", a Finnish client keeps asking one of the protagonists "to show him her pussy", which leads the scammer to the conclusion that "the whites are so disgusting nowadays".

Some of the scammers buy phones with a special microphone that changes the voice from male to female, but OneDollar simply changes the pitch of his voice to sound like a girl when he talks to his Canadian "lover", as he tries to convince him to send him money for a flight ticket.

Ghana is full of e-waste – that is, old computers dumped on a number of garbage sites. One of the methods of stealing is to find a hard drive that contains personal and financial information from the former owner – and though it sounds like a long shot, we actually see it work, as Francis finds active data on a British man.

When a client is "stubborn", the fraudsters turn to voodoo priests who perform rituals (sometimes incorporating elements of Islam or Christianity) to help the scam work. In one such case, OneDollar gets an egg that he is supposed to hatch himself, and then his client will fall for the fraud. A scene in which he puts the egg into an improvised incubator in a wooden box next to his laptop is one of the many bizarre and paradigmatic images that will stay with the audience.

Asamoah transports us to the dusty streets of Ghanaian towns and villages, and the ramshackle homes of the penniless protagonists, and includes several aerial shots of the majesty of African nature in order to draw a crucial historical parallel that also touches upon potential ethical issues. The white man has been making false promises to Africans and plundering the continent for centuries, and through “sakawa”, young Ghanaians are simply exploiting the available resources for their own profit.

Sakawa is a co-production between Belgium's IntiFilms and the Netherlands' Pieter van Huystee Film, with the involvement of Flemish TV channel Canvas, Dutch broadcaster BNNVARA and YLE Finland. Germany's Rise and Shine owns the international rights.

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