Off the Cuff: Fred Kuwornu, filmmaker and activist

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

Fred Kuwornu, an Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker and activist, visited Oberlin earlier this week as a part of Black History Month. His visit included the screening of several of his documentaries and a talk about his upcoming film Blaxploitalian. Kuwornu’s films explore little known histories and political issues surrounding people of African-Italian descent. The Review sat down with Kuwornu to discuss history and race in Italian cinema and politics.

Your documentaries Blaxploitalian and Inside Buffalo focus on uncovering relatively unknown histories. How did you select these subjects?

Just because I became much more [interested in] historical subjects — the historical background of the African Diaspora. I was born and raised in Italy. My father is Ghanaian, and I discovered the story of African-American soldiers in World War II [while] working on a film by Spike Lee called Miracle at St. Anna. This film is a film in which [Lee] tries to tell the story of the 92nd Infantry Divison, a segregated African-American combat unit which fought in World War II in Italy. I was working as a stand-in and assistant in this production, and I discovered this story. It was a story, [at least] for me, unknown in Italy, even though I was born and raised in Italy… [and studied] in the Italian studies program. So I decided to do a documentary about that. I came here to America to interview African-American veterans. This was 2009, and from 2010, I started to promote this work in many screenings …we did around the U.S. Starting from the distribution and production of this work, I started to learn many things about how the United States is really hoping to talk and speak about diversity to an international filmmaker. …

So this was for me a big encouragement to understand that now in not only the U.S., but also in many other countries, you can try to tell your own story, and maybe this own story can interest many other countries. So I started to exploit the fact that I know … [about] African-Italian backgrounds and have experience in [both]. Now I want to tell stories that are about the African-Italians. [This] is a way also to engage the international audience who are of African descent or Ghanaian descent. That is a huge audience in the world, [including] the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and every place where Italians immigrated [to in] the past.

Blaxploitalian is your upcoming film about the careers of Black actors in Italian cinema. Could you tell me about what you found?

It’s a huge area that we can explore, and so in this documentary, we will show how many African-American actors worked in Italian cinema during the ’40s and ’50s and the ’70s. … [It also shows the] other African actors [who] worked during the ’20s and ’30s and also the ’60s and the ’70s and how many now African-Italian workers are working nowadays in the last 10 years, and the problems they are finding in working in the Italian cinema. It’s a part of what many hope: … [to] have much more diversity on screen. So the Italian cinema has diversity on screen just because they have to have actors to [play] the role of the immigrants. The problem we will highlight with this documentary is that we have a lot of Italians [with] an African background, but they are Italian, so they speak Italian. They are born and raised in Italy, but … usually they are used to act[ing] as immigrants or to speak[ing] African. So obviously, we are trying to explain how it is important now for Italian cinema and European cinema to have a more diverse experience.

You also directed 18 Ius Soli: The Right To Be Italian. Could you tell me a little about Italy’s citizenship laws? Have these changed at all since the 2012 release of the documentary?

We have a citizenship law in which you are Italian only if one of your parents is Italian, so it doesn’t matter if you are born in Italy or outside Italy. If you are born in Paris but are Italian, you are Italian; but if your parents are not Italian [and] you are born in Italy, you have to wait [until you are] 18 years old to apply to become a citizen. Unfortunately, this law has not changed in the last year. We did this documentary to make a social campaign to make pressure to change the law, and we hope in 2015, the new Prime Minister will try to make an executive order to change this law to a law that is much more similar to the law that Germany or other countries in Europe have. So it is a mixed way between the American citizenship law that you are American and a citizen simply because you are born in the country. So from the first day that you are born in the country, you are [a] citizen. Maybe we will do a similar law as Germany. Germany has a law in which, in the case [that] your parents are not German, you are not German immediately, but after [eight] years… [of] living in the country.

How do documentaries serve as a useful medium for exploring these problems and histories? Can they be a medium for activism?

Documentaries now can be used at different levels. … They can be used as a media for social campaigns, so they can be used in different situations to create a community screening where people can discuss a problem. … [Documentaries can] be on the internet. You can also use it to create a website in which you are allied to a social campaign [or] a social issue that [is] in the documentary. So it’s multiplatform. They become very helpful for people who are also activists or people who want to create a social change about something.

Are there any subjects you would like to make a documentary about in the future?

Yeah. I’m working on a trilogy called Afroitalics, Afropeans and Afropolitan. It is a trilogy about the three different identities that [someone of] African descent can have. [Afroitalics is about] someone who has Italian and African descendants, and they could be people who are be born in America by [an] Italian-American, [an] African American or [in] Brazil by [an] African-Brazilian and Italian-Brazilian, and people who are born in Europe who have both heritages — so the African-Italian heritage. Afropeans is about the black people who are living in Europe [and we hope] to see if they have something in common or not [with each other]. Afropolitan is a new documentary about people who are of African descent, but sometimes people who are cosmopolitan are living in a place [such as] China, Brazil or not the typical place where you can expect to find people of African descent.