The devil and the deep blue sea

A deadly game of cat and mouse on board a Russian cargo ship - surely not even Hollywood would buy that? James Rampton on the true story of a Ghanaian stowaway
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The Independent Culture
This sort of thing never happens on EastEnders. During the filming in Ghana last year of Deadly Voyage, a BBC Screen Two film to be broadcast this weekend, the second assistant director fell down a storm-drain and broke his ankle. "A rumour went around that the gods hadn't been pacified and that the souls of the undead were unhappy," recalls Johnny Carmichael, the Ghanaian production supervisor who also happens to be a tribal chief. "The Ghanaian crew began to get a bit jumpy. So we decided to pour a libation to pacify the gods. Then we paid a fee to the chieftain's stool, and he slaughtered a sheep on the set." In an unrelated incident, the crew discovered that they couldn't use the telephone land-lines from the set as the copper cables had been dug up by locals and made into bracelets. Such are the perils of shooting abroad.

But where others might well have thought "If only we could film the whole thing at Pinewood", the producers of Deadly Voyage were only too delighted to be shooting in Ghana. For a start, the local crew were as keen as mustard: "They have more enthusiasm than a big bag of enthusiasm marked `enthusiast'," remarks Robert Partridge, the production armourer.

The African setting also lends the film a texture that no amount of technical wizardry could re-create in a British studio. "Being in Ghana, you gain the colour, flavour, heat and dust of Africa, which you just can't fake," says Deadly Voyage's co-producer Bradley Adams, and the film is indeed redolent of what the French call "le bouquet d'Afrique".

Certainly no Home Counties back-lot could mock up Ghana's vivid blue sea or the palm-tree-lined white beaches where the Bounty ads were reputedly shot. Every street corner is an unreproducible bustle of scurrying goats, women balancing impossibly precarious pyramids of lemons on their heads and signs advertising "The Christian Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service" or warning "Slow, Cows Crossing". But, above all, Ghana is where the true story of Deadly Voyage began.

It's one of those tales that might appear in a tabloid column headed "You Couldn't Make It Up". In 1992, nine Ghanaians stowed away on a Russian- crewed cargo ship. They made a hideaway for themselves among some cocoa- sacks in the hold. Collecting rain water from the deck one night, however, they left incriminating footprints on the freshly-painted floor. The crewmen hunted them down and incarcerated them in a dark, oily chain-locker.

Aware that they would be heavily fined if they landed with stowaways, the crew resolved to murder them and chuck the evidence overboard. One by one, the stowaways were removed from the chain-locker and shot. The last in line, Kingsley Ofosu (played in the film by American actor Omar Epps), realised what was going on and managed to escape the firing-squad. From his hiding-place, however, he had to watch his own brother being hurled overboard, wounded but still alive.

For four days in the maze-like bowels of the ship, Kingsley evaded the pursuing crew, before finally abseiling 50m down the anchor-chain when the ship docked at Le Havre. He was immediately arrested by the French police, who refused to believe his story - until he took them back on board, whereupon the crew freely admitted to the murders, expecting medals for ridding the French of "undesirable" immigrants. As the first mate, Ion, boasts in the film, "We were trying to do France a favour." Four crew members and the captain were tried and convicted of murder in France, where Kingsley is now trying to re-build his life by studying engineering and playing semi-professional football for Le Havre.

The story is worth recounting in such detail so its full impact can sink in. It has the visceral power of a concentration-camp drama. But if you'd pitched this outrageous mixture of Alien, Das Boot and Roots to your average Hollywood bigshot, he'd have flicked cigar-ash at you dismissively and said: "Get outta here. No one'll buy that." But buy it people must, because it's true.

Hunched on the bed in one of the cramped officer's cabins on the Keta Lagoon, the 16,000-ton cargo ship where they are filming near the Ghanaian capital of Accra, Adams reckons that his film "has got everything that makes a great drama about it. There's a bloke man-hunted in a trapped environment, playing a cat-and-mouse game around this labyrinth. It has the ticking clock of suspense."

As soon as he and writer Stuart Urban read the story in a "News in Brief" column, they knew it had "movie" written all over it and made contact with Kingsley through his lawyer in Le Havre. Adams learnt that Tristar and Eddie Murphy were also chasing him. "We had to go out three times to get the rights to his story, because he's a very stubborn guy. That is the characteristic that made him survive."

Adams admits they paid Kingsley "a substantial amount" for his story. "It's very easy to forget this actually happened to this guy," he reasons. "He won't set foot on this boat. He finds it pretty dodgy even to go on the quay. We have also given the other victims' families a small donation. It's difficult because we can't give everyone money. We'd like to have a charity show here and give it to the families."

John Goldschmidt, another co-producer, sees it as a Conradian story. "Blacks in the movies are always shown as gun-carrying drug-pushers. Here they are innocent guys who want to invest their money in education. What they come up against is a load of Russians who themselves feel dispossessed."

Epps, however, is keen to play down the element of racial conflict in the story. "It is underlying, but Ion is an evil guy, not an evil white guy. We don't want people pulling the race card on this film." Adams chips in. "In their own way, the sailors are victims, too. With the breakdown of the Eastern bloc, they're the peasants of the sea. Many have to pay bribes even to get on the crew. They're a Third World country now."

Ion is played by Sean Pertwee; with his blackened teeth and grimy vest, he is yet another British actor fulfilling the role of baddie. "You don't feel proud doing some of the scenes," he concedes, "but the Ghanaian crew have been very supportive. Meeting Kingsley at the read-through broke my heart. We all felt the racist guilt thing. As I left, I told him, `I hope the Russians rot in hell.' It was an extremely moving experience."

Down in the hold, you get an idea of what the stowaways went through. Descending three rusty step-ladders, you feel like you're entering the seventh circle of Dante's hell. It's hot enough to fry a banana fritter on the metal floor - a Steadicam actually exploded down there the week before - and the mere act of standing is enough to send great droplets of sweat cascading into your eyes. One of the actors has contracted malaria and has ended up on a drip in the local hospital. If the Russians hadn't got these wretched stowaways, you feel, the heat might have done.

Yet, Adams despairs, Ghanaians are still tempted to stow away: there is even a "school for scoundrels" at the port of Takoradi where dockers teach people how to sneak on to ships undetected. This can only add to the number of bodies that are found washed up on the country's coastline. "Anyone who's thinking of stowing away might think twice about it now," Adams muses. "They're leaving a great place and what is it they're going to? The Coca Cola culture has been sold to them, but the reality in the West is very different."

Pertwee echoes Adams in lamenting how misguided the stowaways were in thinking that the streets of New York were paved with gold. "They did it all to get away to a materialistic, advert-flashing world which we think is a pile of shit. We aspire to be here, living a Bohemian existence under a palm-tree on a beach, and they aspire to be where we're from."

Danny Glover, the Hollywood star of the Lethal Weapon cycle, thinks Deadly Voyage has wider resonance still. A staunch supporter of African-American causes - he is on President Clinton's African-American committee - he has been brought in by HBO, the BBC's American partner on the film, as executive producer. Sipping from a can of 7-Up as he lounges on an armchair in the ship's common room, this tall, affable man reflects that "it may be specifically a Ghanaian story, yet its ramifications speak to all people who look for a better life and look to break the confinement of chains that still exist within this century. It's not making a quantum leap to say that African-Americans, for instance, are going to be able to relate to this story and see part of their own struggle within it."

Adams hopes that the film will "make people think, `What really is the Third World? Where does it begin and end?' We so rarely think about what happens to real people in the Third World. This gives a personality to the tragedy." He is also hopeful that Deadly Voyage will encourage the embryonic Ghanaian film industry, which has already played host to the British TV films The Dying of the Light and Faith. "You leave behind a little bit of the infrastructure each time," Adams says, pointing out that a British set-painter has been training up three Ghanaians.

Glover, too, hopes that they have planted some seeds that may soon blossom in Africa. "I don't like to talk about immediate gratification or immediate change, but this project says something symbolically, and it's up to us to find other opportunities to be supportive. I'm not saying HBO is suddenly going to open up a branch in Accra, but this provides us with a forum to initiate and sustain a dialogue. If you throw enough spaghetti at the door, it opens."

n `Deadly Voyage' is on BBC2 on Saturday