Alfie Nze, a Nigerian-Italian filmmaker gears up for a daunting movie on the humanitarian crises occasioned by the deadly immigration routes that many Nigerians embark on, writes Yinka Olatunbosun

Nigerian-born Italian theatre artist and filmmaker, Alfie Nze was in Lagos for two months for the just-concluded LagosPhoto festival when he hosted a handful of culture journalists. It was thought to be a simple meeting, few talks about his work and light discussions on general issues. But it turned to be a revealing session on the lives of Nigerians in diaspora, particularly those who embark on “death trips” in search of greener pasture in Italy where he had been a resident for two decades.

Nze hails from Ekwe in Imo State. As a playwright in Italian theatre, he had developed strong presence in drama and had shot in first film titled, “Devil Comes to Koko” in 2013 in Nigeria. It was based on the historic invasion of Koko village by toxic waste in 1987 and 1988, caused by a group of Italian businessmen.

“It caused a diplomatic row between Nigeria and Italy. I was a teenager then,” Nze began, reflectively. His work, be it on stage or screen, centres on social issues. His performance art titled, “Ibo Communion” is a case in point and was his submission for LagosPhoto 2016. The work investigates the concept of communion from the Ibo point of view which, he believes, is often ignored in many African narratives. And he has travelled around with this work. His next movie project is untitled and it comes in two phases, first as a short film and next a feature film. He arranged an audition in Lagos for some Nigerian location shoot that he scheduled for the 30-minute short film. Nze revealed how the story was developed and the rationale behind it.

“If you live in any of the European countries today, you will think Nigeria is on fire,” he said. “On a daily basis, there are at least three boats loaded with Nigerians rescued from the Mediterranean Sea with dead bodies. I have been in Nigeria for two months and I have never seen a feature in Nigerian news media on this humanitarian crisis. I saw a sticker on a tricycle one day at Lagos Island that read: Study and work in Canada with a phone number.”

That really is a common sight in Nigeria. However, it is not common knowledge that most of these migration adverts are used by human traffickers to lure Nigerians from their homeland to a new life of slavery or death. Some perpetrators even use credible media platforms as well as radio jingles to call for migrants.

“People organise death trips of Nigerians through the desert and the Mediterranean,” he disclosed. “I collaborate with the UN High commission on refugees in Italy as an interpreter. The projects I am working on are not projects that I picked up from the newspapers. I am dealing first hand with the Nigerian crises in Italy. We don’t just deal with the migration crisis but the Nigerian educational crisis.

Boys and girls of below 25 years are incapable of writing their names. Some Nigerians have finished secondary schools and are incapable of writing a full sentence in English. The story is enormous and it is part of the campaign by AWAREFOUNDATION.”

Nze also claimed that Nigerians account for the highest number of migrants on the Mediterranean Sea much more than Syria, adding that over 70 per cent of these migrants from Nigeria are from the Benin axis. “I am referring to the old Bendel State which includes Delta and Bayelsa. Just a few Yorubas are usually there,” he clarified.

The movie’s temporary title is “Inochie” meaning “Grandma”. It is the story of a boy, 18 years old who was born in Lagos. His life is suddenly transformed and disrupted by the death of his cousin who embarked on the death trip. He is a young boy making his music here in a small studio for his girlfriend. He receives the sad news and goes home to meet his family. The boy is to accompany his grandmother to break the news of the death of his cousin to the deceased’s grandmother. Eventually, he embarks on the same journey- the death trip-to experience what his late cousin passed through.

“The larger picture is that he will go through the journey and survive it. Through him, I will tell the story that is not often told about life in Italy. A good percentage of our young men and the girls, when they don’t venture into prostitution, are on the streets begging for money with caps in hand. This is not theoretical. We have become synonymous with begging. Nigerians stand in front of cafes, able-bodied young men begging for money. If Nigerian government decides to block the exit of Nigerians through the land borders, they can do it.”

One would think that the current wave of economic recession might have aggravated the migrant issue but he recalled that this crisis began way before the recession.

“The larger picture is that he will go through the journey and survive it. Through him, I will tell the story that is not often told about life in Italy. A good percentage of our young men and the girls, when they don’t venture into prostitution, are on the streets begging for money with caps in hand. This is not theoretical. We have become synonymous with begging. Nigerians stand in front of cafes, able-bodied young men begging for money. If Nigerian government decides to block the exit of Nigerians through the land borders, they can do it.”

Since what he does is creative documentary, he could use archetypal characters to tell the story. In 2013, he started scouting for Nigerian actors in Milan to act some of the roles in the short movie about Nigerian migrants in Italy but to his amazement, no Nigerian came for the audition, even after much persuasion. Eventually, he settled for the regular actors that he’d worked with, one of them hails from Ivory Coast. He started his career in Italy as an actor, learnt Italian language, which in itself could be a major hurdle for an immigrant. He thought giving Nigerians in Italy that same opportunity would be a good effort in combating the crises caused by migrants abroad.

“Many Nigerians live the worst of lives in Europe,’’ he continued.
“There is a constant humanitarian crisis and on top of the news is
Nigeria. The issue of human trafficking and prostitution has gone to
another level because in Italy, they make very strict laws to punish
offenders. The gangs have moved over to bringing boys for male
prostitution and I will not say who the beneficiaries are. They are
the least suspected. Two or three weeks ago, a guy was busted in
Sicily. It was in the news. In Italy, mafia is real. People are killed
on a daily basis in Italy by the mafia. The Nigerian mafia on human
trafficking in Sicily took a portion of the business. What I may be
working on may not be safe for me but someone has to work on this.
Recently too, a Nigerian mafia was busted in Madrid for human
trafficking and prostitution. We cannot over emphasise enough if we
don’t have these things on television. As long as we don’t see these
in the mainstream media often, people will continue to cajole others
into fast wealth. Today, there is a slave market in Niger where
Nigerian girls and boys are bought and taken to Libya. Sometimes,
those who buy them enter the boat with them to make sure that their
business is safe. The dimension has changed.”

Nze, who is co-directing this movie project with an Italian director, raised concern on the mass migration of Nigerians in Edo state. He said that many families had sold their houses and other valuable properties to send their children on the death trip. And any family that is without a member abroad or on the way outside the Nigerian shores is terribly looked down upon. Though he acknowledged that some Nigerians have honourable jobs in Italy, he remarked that majority of them engage in menial jobs simply because they couldn’t break the language barrier or are still associated with other Nigerians who have no career goals.

One thing he was happy for was the turn-out of Nigerians at the Lagos audition. He looked forward to returning to Nigeria soon to source for funds for the feature film on this worrisome global trend.