The lives of others

AFRICA / Karim Sayad's 2G is an intimate portrait of former people smugglers from Niger.

There is a public perception of people smugglers as ogres – terrible men who profit from the desperation of people feeling war and persecution and who couldn’t care less if they die during their epic journeys to a dream of freedom. Karim Sayad’s beautifully, cinematically filmed 2G steps away from judgement and looks at men who are forced to turn away from their part in the human chain from Sub-Saharan Africa and find other ways of supporting themselves after a government clamp down on the trade in refugees.

2G Karim Sayad
2G, a film by Karim Sayad

Gradual introductions

Sayad introduces his characters gradually – letting us see Abdallah, Ibrahim, Abdousalam, Douada, and another Ibrahim as the ordinary family men they are. These are not evil men – but God-fearing men, we learn. Tough and able, they claim that only God can judge them and that they are at peace with what they did.

The director only touches lightly on their past: mostly, they formed part of a transport network that took ‘foreigners’ (i.e., Africans from countries other than Niger) across the border to Libya, from where other smugglers took over. They were aware that some of the people they transported could die in overcrowded boats trying to cross the Mediterranean but seemed to have distanced their part in those fates.

Filmed in Agadez in Niger – long a starting point for people smugglers moving migrants through the desert to Libya – 2G confronts viewers with the stark choices ordinary people face in the land-locked poverty-stricken former French colony that nestles between Nigeria to the south and Mali, Algeria, and Libya to the north. Although it has some natural resources, including gold and uranium, most exports are agricultural or processed materials such as bricks, chemicals, and cement. The average income is less than €100 a month, and there are few opportunities for those without higher education. One of Karim’s subjects had no formal education at all.

The average income is less than €100 a month, and there are few opportunities for those without higher education.

Under pressure

When, under pressure from Europe, the Niger government outlaws transporting anyone other than citizens of Niger across the desert to Libya, Abdallah, and his friends are left with little choice but to turn to work in remote ad-hoc gold mines, where men risk their lives to dig deep pits into the rocky ground in search of dirt that may hold traces of the precious metal.

Their only advantage is their battered old pick-up trucks, which they now adapt to carrying heavy sacks of pulverised rock for simple processing some distance from the mines. Their talent is knowing the desert and how to cross it safely with a heavy load. Mining is a job for younger men – the work is arduous and can be dangerous – and only a few succeed in doing more than scrape a living from the tiny traces of gold they find.

The film looks splendid, and the skill used in filming in the desert – where stark daylight is as challenging to capture as the fast-changing tones at dusk – is remarkable. There is a blissful serenity and simplicity in some of the images captured.

2G Karim Sayad
2G, a film by Karim Sayad

Low risk, low reward

But life in the gold camps is not blissful. «As soon as you strike gold, it changes you,» says one of the former people smugglers. «You’re not friends anymore, and it’s every man for himself.»

That the government is not successful in entirely stemming the people smuggling is evident in a glimpse of a heavily overloaded truck, with people clinging to the top and sides, that slowly moves past the Toyotas as they transport their loads of gold-yielding rock.

The risks may be lower in transporting dirt rather than desperate people, but so are the rewards: one load of a dozen sacks of crushed rock gives up just two grams of gold – worth all of €80. Shared between the men and the gold miners, with some taken for gas, it hardly represents a fortune.

But, like the vulnerable bean plant that one young gold digger carefully cultivates in the camp’s harsh environment, these men know how to survive when all is against them.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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