AFRICA: Sakawa uses beautiful portraiture to tell a story of Ghana’s enterprising young adults who hope to make a living by learning how to scam on the Internet.

Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin
Jo-Anne Velin is a Canadian journalist & film director living in Europe, creating long-form documentary films with a very special focus on authentic sound.
Published date: July 7, 2019

Sakawa

Ben Asamoah

Peter Krüger

Belgium, The Netherlands

Sakawa is a Ghanaian word describing the evolved practice of scamming foreigners via Internet, invoking religion and ritual to enhance success.

Belgian director Ben Asamoah’s film, Sakawa, takes you into the quiet way of life of a poor community’s micro-entrepreneurs who have developed their own scamming practices. He does this with tenderness and patience to reveal how this strategy has grown organically from the spread of the Internet per se, and from the treasures found in waste PCs dumped in Ghana en masse from wealthy countries. It makes perfect sense at that scale and in that context, to harvest money from men, and sometimes women, who seek love online and who will pay for the hope and emotional fulfillment of being noticed. Asamoah also drops in other examples of how people strive to overcome poverty, through piety, ingenuity, or trying to acquire what they need to get into Europe. The whole film, however, is beautifully shot. The editing puts it neatly into a type or category that makes this a very Belgian/European film indeed – very much a film made primarily for an audience in the North, and a television audience at that. We are always outside looking in, even if the director has Ghanaian roots.

Ground zero

The opening shot follows a man hauling computer waste across a vast PC dump. Hand tools crack the hard drives from their metal boxes. This is ground zero.

Sakawa shows us the matter of fact strategies people use to target «clients»

it demonstrates how systematic swindling of white men and women seeking love and partnership through Internet dating connections, sometimes succeeds.

(the subtitles use this word) in rich countries as sources of raw material, or as prey. There is no finger-wagging condescension by the director. The film is especially strong as it demonstrates how systematic swindling of white men and women seeking love and partnership through Internet dating connections, sometimes succeeds. Detailed market analysis is shared between the scammers; digital filters on a phone, or sheer acting, make a man’s voice sound like a woman’s; an old hard drive is cracked and the owner’s bank account details are plumbed; a young woman teaches another how to lure the client; a young man, after purifying himself with the help of a voodoo priestess, takes an egg she has given him to hatch and brings it home to care for it: on the bus, he cups the egg oh so delicately in his hands. As one scammer talks about good catchment areas, another casually rattles off the names of good markets in the US and Europe. You learn that in Chicago, no one falls for the scam, but in small town places, well, it’s different. «StreetView» can even show you the client’s home; compared to the concrete room and worn sofas where the scammers work, the incentive is obvious. The goal is to move money from abroad to their own accounts; these are the resourceful ways it’s done. The wealth is just sitting there to be taken, claims the one preacher; God has provided, now go and get it. But another implores his audience to be happy with what they have because money won’t bring spiritual salvation.

But it will buy medicine, pay for school, and put food into your loved ones.

Pitch appeal

Sakawa showcases the ingenuity that would be very desirable in any immigrant. Every pitch appeals to the client’s needs. And there is a lot of manipulative psychology put into practice that reminds me of a one-liner from the lead advertising executive in Mad Men: «(Your idea of) love is something a guy like me invented to sell nylons.»

Classic form

Sakawa has been edited into classic documentary form, interweaving a handful of personal stories in a style you see over and over. The imagery is full of good craft, often shot close up, as it preserves the dignity of those in front of the lens; the sound mix is smooth, richly using ambient noises, and keeps my attention on the people I am seeing and hearing.

Detailed market analysis is shared between the scammers

But I have some thoughts about the choice of film music created to buttress a mood here and there. It isn’t used very often, but it seems to be doing exactly what the director might not have intended. That mood music interrupts abruptly the process of sinking deeper into the locale and the persons on screen – it breaks the intimacy. Suddenly, we are given tonal forms that fit broadly into a kind of global film-mood-music category. The musical/tonal frame of reference in those passages places us in a mixing studio somewhere in Brussels. Our point of view seems to shift: now, it’s all about us, and not about the person on screen. That empathy might not reflect at all, how the person on screen is feeling. Nor might it reflect how someone from Ghana would respond to the scene. I suggest it is closer to what a tourist driving by might feel. This is a detail, maybe not even so important, but I wanted to comment because it helps to understand how that kind of music steers the experience. It doesn’t take anything away from the visual craft, but it does alter the emotional flow.

Sakawa-documentary-post-MTR
Sakawa, a film by Ben Asamoah

This leads me to an important point: the director is Belgian, but his family has Ghanaian roots. After a first «aha,» in fact, I realise I have no idea how close he is to his roots and guess he brings a dual perspective; knowing this enriches the film for me, even though everything else about its idiom feels like many European supported productions about African situations. I want to believe, and do feel, that Asamoah has the trust of the community he is filming in a way that another Belgian film director would not. The naturalness and apparent comfort of the people in front of the lens feel genuine; I trust his judgment. I also want to assume that someone from Ghana will recognise little details that I would miss. More than anything, though, his film respectfully demonstrates how this cluster of young adults tries to survive a global economy that exploits the poor more than they can ever exploit the wealthy back, with no heavy voice-overs, no melodrama, always interesting and often beautifully so.


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Modern Times Review