Fred Kudjo Kuwornu is an Italian-Ghanian producer, film director and activist born and raised in Italy and based in Brooklyn. His award-winning film Inside Buffalo (2010) documents African-American veterans who fought in Italy during World War II, while his 2012 documentary 18 Ius Soli: The Right To Be Italian examines questions of citizenship for the one million children of immigrants born and raised in Italy. Kuwornu's third documentary Blaxploitalian premiered at Rome, Martinique, Martha's Vineyard and the Pan African Film Festival and has screened at over a dozen universities across the world.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Fred Kudjo Kuwornu discusses diversity in film, the recent success of Black Panther and his next projects.
FILMATIQUE: A remarkably ambitious film, Blaxploitalianinvestigates the history of black performers onscreen in Italy over the course of 100 years. What motivated you to undertake this particular inquiry?
FRED KUDJO KUWORNU: The idea came to me because I too have experienced the problem of not being able to work in film, if I didn't want to take on stereotypical parts. I realized that the only roles being offered to me were for the part of "the immigrant." There was a film by a famous director named Michele Placido in which I played the part of a character with an African accent— but I took the part because it was an opportunity to work with Michele Placido.
Fortunately after that my life changed, and I was no longer interested in acting. And so these ideas stayed with me until a few years ago, when I read Leonardo de Franceschi's book Africa in Italy. Reading this book I had the idea that I could actually do this. Because in reality there was much more than I had imagined— material for creating something more systematic, like a textbook, something educational. Obviously, I could have also told this story from the perspective of a person who goes to casting calls, et al and then explains the difficulties he or she faces— but that would be something different. I wanted to do this project with more voices. And so that is where the idea came from, about two years ago.
FLMTQ: To what extent do you believe the history of black Italian screen performers intersects with the country's social, cultural, and political shifts? In this sense, do you believe cinema can serve as a mirror for society?
FKK: I believe cinema and more other media are relevant for the ideas we have about ourselves and can be used as tools to better develop our identities.
FLMTQ: If so, what responsibility do you believe filmmakers have to accurately depict the full spectrum of society in regards to race, gender and socio-economic status?
FKK: Yes, I believe filmmakers have this responsibility. And I think that socio-economic status plays a major role, even more than the others, because in many industries we have started to see a change base on ethnicity and gender, but not from the economic background.
FLMTQ: Many would consider now a pivotal moment in the film industry, insofar as Germany, Ireland and many Northern European countries have imposed film industry gender quotas; the Academy of Motion Pictures appears, at the very least, to be making overtures toward diversity; even Frances McDormand advocated Hollywood actors stipulating inclusion riders in their contracts. Having launched such an expansive inquiry of depictions of race in one of the world's oldest and most established film industries, what is your reaction to these headlines? Where do you believe change begins; where is it most effective?
FKK: The change begins, of course, with having representation on-screen and it can only be complete with more diversity off-screen, encouraging a new generation of casting directors and producers to be part of the system.
Frequently when a role is not specified, the actor always ends up being white and male. This issue needs to be addressed— parts should be specified for certain types of actors only when it's absolutely necessary. A historical film, yes, because it's based on history. Or a story in which the leading role was specifically designed and planned.
We need to focus not just on leading roles, but also on the smallest parts. In other words, diversity must exist in the composition of the image you see in the film, in which many different people and things appear, subtly forming an image of reality in our minds.
FLMTQ: How do you believe depictions of black identity onscreen have evolved vis-à-vis cultural movements, both past and present, for equality?
FKK: I think the recent success of Black Panther tells us that the risk to invest in diverse talents and diverse stories can result in films gaining audience and not losing filmgoers.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
FKK: I am working on web doc series Afrocracy and BlackItaliano to further investigate blackness in Europe and emancipation in Africa. I want to move to digital media as a primary tool of distributing my works to an audience. I am thinking of maybe developing an initial 1-3 minute doc format that will eventually develop in a feature.