“When you first set foot in Agbogbloshie, it is an absolutely devastating experience. The noise, the working conditions, the filth; you constantly have a metallic taste in your mouth, and you simply can’t get your bearings in that vast space.”
This is how directors Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes describe their first impression of the place they explore in their documentary film “Welcome to Sodom: Your Smartphone is Already Here”, which is set to have its Austrian premiere on 23 November in Stadtkino. The Austrian filmmakers spent some time in one of the most toxic sites on Earth in order to show us what becomes of the old (or not so old) electronic devices we discard, and to document the lives of the people who deal with our waste long after we’ve forgotten about it.
Agbogbloshie, or Sodom as the local residents call it, is a huge scrapyard in the centre of Accra, the capital of Ghana, which has become the end station for a lot of the electronic waste from Europe and the whole world. “It all began in the early years of this century when secondhand electronic computers were brought to Ghana as part of a development aid project,” directors Christian and Florian explain. Nowadays, 250,000 tons of electronic waste is disposed of there every year. A big chunk of it originates in Europe, even though the export of electronic waste from Europe is illegal according to the Basel Convention. The criminal networks that profit from this trade circumvent the law by declaring their goods as “secondhand” rather than as waste, and it is difficult for the authorities to control this.
Sodom is also the end station for a lot of people who come to Accra in search of a better life. Since jobs are hard to come by, they end up living at the landfill, recycling and selling raw materials to secure a livelihood, but also making music, dancing and engaging in all manner of enterpreneurial activities. It is through their perspective that the directors want us to get to know this baffling place.
The film aims to show the close connection that exists between Europe and Ghana in our globalized world and to make us aware of how our consumer behavior impacts the lives of people and the environment in the Global South. Read on to learn more about the directors’ experiences and intentions.
What prompted you to make this location the subject of a film?
To some extent it was definitely the visually striking contrasts of this gigantic scrapyard, but it was also the history of the place. If the stories about it are to be believed, not so very long ago it used to be a beautiful lagoon. It descended into its present condition in just a few years. People say you shouldn’t stay there for more than two hours, because it is one of the most poisonous places in the world. We spent almost two months there; we wanted to give a face and voice to each of the people living and working there, at the lowest and filthiest end of the supply chain in our technological age.
In a way, Ghana can be seen as symbolic of a dystopian society. There are a few super rich individuals whose lives are completely sealed off from the majority of people, who have to survive on a dollar or two a day. At the same time, it is a comparatively wealthy country, sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa. That is why the capital, Accra, exerts a magical attraction on people from the poorer north and the economically weaker neighbouring countries, who move there in the hope of forging new lives for themselves. What everyone in Ghana has in common is the impending ecological collapse of the country. Agbogbloshie is only one of the hotspots, although a particularly dramatic one. Over 6,000 people live on this electronic scrapyard in the center of Accra. The river that flows through the site is completely dead: the water is extremely toxic…, but it is used to irrigate the surrounding fields. Just a kilometer further the river flows into the Atlantic, contaminating the fish stocks there and thus affecting millions of people.
How long did it take you to form a picture of the way this micro-society actually works?
At first the place strikes you as absolutely chaotic, and it took me a long time to understand that everything is in fact organized there. Every part of the land belongs to someone, and everyone has a well-defined job. What the people have developed in that scrapyard is a fascinating social structure.
If you take a closer look and focus on the organization, the first apocalyptic image fades into the background. You discover that for the people there, this place is full of perspective: it is a place to celebrate the joy of life and incredible creativity. In the apparent chaos of the scrapyard we discovered a smooth-running organization, an orderly system, and we met people who practice recycling in the best sense of the word. The most important raw materials that can be recovered from the electronic scrap are iron, aluminium, and above all copper, which is released when the cable installation is melted off. One way or another, these raw materials are returned to the economic cycle of the international market.
What were your feelings when you left Agbogbloshie?
When you spend so much time there, and you develop close relationships with people, it is really upsetting to leave again. While we were there we were certainly able to help in a few emergency situations, and to provide a bit of support. You leave the country knowing that the people there have no choice; they have to stay, and you can’t give them any sustainable assistance. The most difficult moment emotionally was definitely when one woman asked us to take her daughter with us. How desperate would a mother have to be, to entrust her child to a stranger? She couldn‘t really understand why it wasn’t possible. Being unable to help her was a very oppressive feeling.
Has “Welcome to Sodom” been your biggest project in terms of international perspective?
We are living in a globalized world, and we can’t isolate ourselves. But the gap between the First and the Third World is getting bigger all the time. Political forces are promoting activities in those countries to give the people new perspectives – purely so they will not set off towards Europe – and then development aid is reduced. And it is becoming harder and harder to make difficult films at international locations. With few exceptions, the focus of subsidies and film financing is on a very local level. Feel-good cinema and tourist aspects are in the foreground. It is hard to make critical documentary films. But I think as filmmakers it is our task to confront the audience with the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.
“Welcome to Sodom” will also be shown on 5 December as part of the official programme of this year’s this human world film festival.