He has a passport from Italy, where he was born forty-seven years ago, and a green card from the U.S., where he has lived for years, but he plans to spend more time in Africa, in Ghana, where his father comes from and where his roots are. The film director and video maker Fred Kudjo Kuwornu was an assistant on the set of the film ‘Miracle at St. Anna‘, the 2008 film by Spike Lee about the Nazi massacre in St. Anna di Stazzema (Italy). Fred Kudjo Kuwornu took inspiration from that experience to make his own documentary, ‘Inside Buffalo’, in 2010 about the Afro-American soldiers who helped liberate Italy from the Nazis. Fred Kudjo Kuwornu won the award for best documentary at the Berlin Film Festival with Inside Buffalo, gaining public recognition from presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Giorgio Napolitano. Born in Bologna, the son of a Ghanaian father and an Italian mother, Fred Kudjo Kuwornu is no ordinary Afro-descendant.
What are your origins?
My father arrived in Italy to study medicine in 1965 from a village in Ghana’s Volta Region. After graduating from university he specialised in cardiac surgery and general medicine. My mother instead was born and always lived in Bologna although she was originally from Tuscany. They met in 1969 and were married in 1971, the year I was born. I grew up in Bologna although I also lived in many other cities like Ferrara, Rome for many years, and in Ghana for some time at the end of the 70’s when I was very little. I have lived in New York for almost eight years.
Your mother is Jewish. What is your relationship with religion?
My mother is Jewish and my father is a Protestant, although in Italy he regularly goes to a Catholic church. Even my sister is a Catholic. I converted to Buddhism about ten years ago and I follow the teachings of the Soka Gakkai Japanese school. I strongly believe in the central tenets of Buddhism like the law of cause and effect, the interrelationship between different things in the universe as well as human beings’ degree of realisation of happiness. I am very attached to this philosophy but my practice would require stronger dedication, as in many other things. Yet this was the first religion that convinced and completed me, unlike others that I was more familiar with because of my background but that I never chose. Our parents never forced us to follow a particular religious belief.
Italian with dark skin. Was it difficult at school when you were young… Are we a racist country? Has it got worst?
I tend to go against the trend. When I was young I wasn’t particularly aware of issues relating to discrimination. Also because in those years my schoolmates from the South of Italy were more targeted. I find it difficult to talk about racism. It is a term that has different meanings. In the United States it is associated with many historical and dramatic experiences including the formulation of laws and situations that tended to exclude Afro-Americans. I don’t believe this applies to Italy. I think in Italy it is more of a combination of xenophobia, nativism and also racism born of prejudice. It is a growing phenomenon, especially in the past few years. I know I’m going against the trend but I don’t believe Italy is a racist country. But it is surely strongly xenophobic. And I don’t know which is worse for an immigrant. In the U.S. there is an apparent openness but deep racism is latent. Yet immigrants have greater opportunities. On the contrary, in Italy strong xenophobia limits the social mobility of immigrants.
What did you study?
I have a degree in political science with a focus on sociology and communication. Whilst I was studying I worked as a radio host for private radios from Emilia and Veneto. A job I kept for years. Then I moved to Rome where I conducted the TV programme Zengi on La7 and that’s where my career as an author for TV programmes started. I worked in Rai for a TV travel programme called ‘Italia Che va’ (Italy on the go). Then I became an author for Ilaria D’Amico, Luca Giurato and Tonino Carino. But the turning point in my career came with Spike Lee’s film.
Great opportunity, working with one of the better known Afro-American directors…
I was his assistant on the set and I was also an extra on Miracle at St. Anna. This wonderful four-month experience enabled me to make Inside Buffalo, a film about Buffalo soldiers. These were Afro-American soldiers who fought in Italy in the second world war. This led me to drop the idea of working in television and to focus on making my own videos.
You define yourself as an Afro-descendant. One who’s made it, obviously. There’s more and more people like you in Italy but you remain invisible. Why? Is there a representation problem – political or economic?
I’m glad I’ve made it. There is indeed a lack of representation in Italy but also a lack of will by the institutions and the media. Afro-descendants not only lack economic power but also self-awareness as consumers and tax-payers. If we had that then it would help to consciously steer our fight. Think about how it could apply to advertising. We are consumers, so why not boycott those products that do not promote a complete and truthful image of what is a multi-ethnic reality? Or indeed those others that undermine or dignity. These small actions could help cascade change in many other areas. There is also a lack of awareness about the taxes we pay as Italian citizens. As we pay our TV license we would be entitled to demand a more balanced representation from Rai or Mibact (the Ministry for cultural resources and activities), which finances lots of Italian films but provides little opportunity for representing the new Italians. This conscientisation, both economic and tied to consumption, applies to all Italians really. However, immigrants and Afro-descendants in the Italian context are not able to make use of the means at their disposal to wage their battle, unlike in other countries, especially Anglo-Saxon ones.
In Italy the narrative is either “go back home” or “poor them”. Aren’t they both wrong?
Yes, they are both wrong. Unfortunately, we are lacking the narrative, present in other countries, that sees immigrants accepted not merely on moral grounds but because of what they contribute and the improvements they bring, which are visible and celebrated. Unfortunately in Italy we have a problem: meritocracy is not valued. And immigration is sub-contracted to the Third sector. I’ve been round the world and usually anything to do with immigration is managed by a dedicated national agency. People who deal specifically with security, healthcare, social care. Here unfortunately everything is sub-contracted to the Third sector, the Church, cooperatives, which are not always staffed by competent people. Often staff is recruited on a project basis with someone contracted for six months who then moves on. Therefore, you cannot truly establish a coherent and autonomous structure, able to operate independently of external funds, which are managed by some and then transferred on to others still. This is a typically Italian problem fostering precariousness and a lack of understanding of what immigration actually is.
Do the new generations disregard their original roots and culture? Are they wrong to do so?
They’re not all like that. It really depends on the generation. Those who can travel or keep in touch via Skype with their families and their country of origin are able to maintain this relationship. There’s another generation of people in their thirties and forties who lacking the technological means, or perhaps due to the high cost of flights, have lost contact with Africa. But above all, they don’t understand what’s happening in the different countries, they have an incomplete picture of today’s Africa. Often they tend to associate this view to their limited experience as a Somali, an Eritrean or a Congolese applying the same lens to the whole continent. But instead, like in Europe, there are economic and industrial differences due to economic growth or political stability characterising each single country. Overall, it’s not good to ‘Africanise’ your own back yard, and one that you don’t know too well either. I hope that the new generations wake up to what is happening on the continent as the evident upcoming economic boom will open up job opportunities enabling social reintegration.
You live between Italy and the U.S. and you will soon be entitled to citizenship. Are there any differences between the two countries? Are they racist countries?
They are two different types of racism. In America you see it every day from the behaviour of the police to life in urban ghettoes. At the same time though, the United States have had a black President as well as important and influential Afro-American managers and entrepreneurs. In Italy, xenophobia and nativism, premised on ethnic and cultural superiority, are more prevalent than racism. The problem in Italy is the real lack of opportunity for someone to rise to the top, above the racism.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on many things. I’m also considering going back to Africa to do business. I’d like to work in agriculture, contributing my wider experiences in digital and video marketing. Beyond working as a film director and making documentaries, I also teach in American universities. I teach about diversity, digital video making and I give lessons on multi-ethnic Italy. But in the context of the sharing economy I’d like to capitalise on my experience in the video sector.
Can you tell us more about your wish to go back to Ghana? The work opportunities, your roots… Is Africa the future?
I’ve been going back to Ghana more often over the past three years. Up till now, I’ve gone for short periods up to three or four weeks at a time in order to keep in touch with my family as well as to gauge how much things have changed in the past few years and what opportunities there are. I’ve been really surprised to see immigrants from all over the world there, especially from China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, some Europeans and people from other African countries too. I’ve understood how many opportunities there are despite the existing difficulties, the corruption, the slow bureaucracy and the unreliable electricity supply….There is on-going growth and a palpable upbeat feeling that things will get better. Perhaps this is not the case in all countries but it certainly is in Ghana. That’s made me realise that this pioneer spirit, which was common in the United States a couple of hundred years ago, this American dream – as it is commonly referred to – has actually shifted to Africa. What’s missing is marketing, the awareness that a more positive image of the continent can be communicated beyond the negative images that are commonly reported. The United States are a beautiful country but ridden with contradictions, widespread poverty and so many people living in shacks. You just need to look at the ghettoes in Chicago. But these news are not reported. All we get is the positive image of America. We should do the same with Africa. It is down to African film directors and communicators to find a way of re-telling Africa also looking at the positives. My objective is to spend much more time in Africa. There’s a lot to do there and I don’t want to be late.