EIFF ’19 Review: ‘Sakawa’

Ben Asamoah’s Sakawa follows a group of young Ghanaians, who, facing unemployment and rural poverty, turn to Internet fraud to better themselves. The term ‘Sakawa’ refers to the Ghanaian practice which combines Internet fraud with traditional spiritualist rituals. The Dutch-Ghanaian director manages to capture the intimacy and urgency of this deeply misunderstood subculture, from a compassionate, nonjudgemental gaze. The camera acts as a fly on the wall, hanging back and observing as the group goes about their lives. Through this perspective, the possible tropes of an African developmental narrative are replaced with focused, candid insight. 

The film begins by shedding light on the group, and their process of setting up a profile and connecting with North American and European men online. From setting up accounts and choosing the right photos, the real work begins when someone goes for the bait. Young mother Ama is a rookie, but with the help from seasoned scammer Francis, she begins fishing for ‘clients.’ It’s clear that some are especially dedicated; Francis phones his clients and speaks in a falsetto to really sell it. Most of his peers don’t do this, instead using apps to transform their voices.

While Ghana is one of the more financially secure countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the wealth divide between urban and rural areas is staggering; its youth unemployment rates are really high, and electricity costs are extortionate. Asmoah’s directorial style never explicitly positions the Internet scams as emancipatory, but asks questions without explicitly doing so. The film establishes itself with a shot of the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, where millions of tons of old tech from other continents is processed. Dotted along this mountain range are people searching through computer hardware for data. This hardware often contains photos, documents, and identities of the computers previous owners. With the subjects living payment to payment, and many saving up for visas and passports to leave the country, the audience is encouraged to root for them, to see them succeed. 

Ama’s computer literacy and English skills leaves her struggling at the keyboard, her efforts to woo falling flat. She visits the home of a more experienced scammer, who takes explicit photos of herself to further sell the fantasy to the men online, and encourages Ama to do the same. This scene paints a clear image of the double standard in the Ghanaian e-scamming scene, where women are pushed to utilise their own bodies to hook their clients. But Sakawa never explicitly makes the distinction between e-scamming and sex work, and instead offers a nuanced perspective into the intimate and emotional labours that come with the scene. The men in the scene chat for hours online with their ‘boyfriends’, and Francis often offers emotional support and romantic reassurance over the phone to the foreign men he connects with. In order to cultivate these relationships and see it pay off, it’s all or nothing. 

Sakawa shows a glimpse at the ingenious and resilience of a misunderstood and taboo sub-culture, and offers an empathetic insight into its community. 

 You may check out the rest of our EIFF’ 19 coverage here.


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