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Devil comes to Koko: a story of obsessions, theatre and toxic dumps

A must-do journey: in order to drive an insistent obsession away, to research dramatic episodes which took place far away and long time ago, to complete a cinematographic and theatrical creative process which champed at the bit. This is the brilliant director Alfie Nze‘s journey. Its documentary film “Devil comes to Koko” received the Legambiente Special Mention at CinemAmbiente 2016, member of the Green Film Network.

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I chose to tell this story because of the tormenting memory of the 1987 toxic dump in the small coastal village of Koko in the Niger deltaAlfie Nze told us. “Though I’m not from that village, the memory continued to haunt me for years and I wanted to bring that long ago story to the forefront again, somehow to pint out the fact that we are still dealing with the same environmental problems after so many years. Since the film comes from a theatre play that was inspired by that obnoxious story, I followed the trace of the theatre. It’s as if the characters of the theatre stepped out to take a better look at what gave them life…a sort of Pirandello’s “six characters in search of an author”…now the characters are out in search of the environment that gave them life!

A further reason, as powerful as the wish of righting the wrong caused by an evident injustice, pushed the director to fulfill his work. “I’d like for this film to open a way to the Italian government paying some compensation to the inhabitants of Koko!”. Yes, because in this awful story Italy plays an important and unpleasing role. In fact in 1987 some Italian businessmen illegally imported toxic waste into Koko. The area was completely contaminated while the unsuspecting inhabitants went on living as usual. The case exploded because a group of Nigerian students based in Pisa heard of a strange movement of ships from some Italian ports to Nigeria, and sent some newspaper articles – written by the young Italian journalist that single-handedly investigated these movements- to Nigerian dailies. All this sparked to the enactment of the first Nigerian law on the protection of the environment known as the “Environmental Protection Act”. Nevertheless, the whole area of Koko, its ecosystem, and the lives of the inhabitants and of the operators involved in loading the wastes were by now compromised.

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Cinema, being a mass phenomena, is a powerful tool that could be used to push forward the fight for a clean environment, thereby making most people aware of the consequence of each individual action” the director continues, emphasizing the importance of getting the facts across. “My film in particular could be used to show how the actions of few individuals could change things, both for good and bad; the syndicate of businessmen that dumped the toxic wastes in the village of Koko, the incredibly courageous action of professor Enrico Falqui of the Florence University, that of the journalist Rachele Gonnelli whose articles in the newspaper “Unità” prompted the action of prof. Falqui and many others….. the list of individuals who made it possible for the story to reach me, a teenager in Lagos, is almost endless!

The toxic waste saga becomes intertwined with another sad episode which took place in the area at the end of 19th century: “The sack of Benin”, or “British Punitive Expedition”. After various attempts to enter Benin, the British, who had invaded the closest small coastal village called Koko using it as a trading route, made another attempt from the village to enter the Kingdom. This action ended bloody, killed unspecified numbers of its inhabitants, setting fire to the whole city, after carting away loads of artefacts.

As images show, Alfie learnt about this fact during his trip to Nigeria, and included it into the story. “The style of the film comes from my own style of narration. Being a theatre director too, I use metaphor to narrate life. Since the world of today is replete with images, one has to find an original way to tell a story, especially a story that comes from almost thirty years back, that could easily translate into “Yes, I have seen that before!” attitude of the spectator. Paradoxically, often, metaphors are the best window from which one views reality”. In this case, the metaphor of a land where it hasn’t rained for over eight years makes us aware of truths that are even too real, and unveils responsibilities that we didn’t even knew we had.