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Sorin Mihailovici, ‘419: The Nigerian Scam’

By Hecklerspray

Everyone, at some point or another, has been targeted by emails from spurious Nigerian princes who need your money to retrieve vast stolen fortunes.

And everyone, when they've received these emails, deletes them instantly because they're not hopelessly naive. Except some don't. Some reply to the emails, offer to help out and end up losing everything. And that's what 419: The Nigerian Scam is all about.

Directed by Sorin Mihailovici on a budget of just $180, 419: The Nigerian Scam is a movie that's making waves on the independent circuit, not only getting screened at festivals but winning them too. We caught up with Mihailovici for a chat about the scam and the movie itself…

What's the movie about?
419: the Nigerian Scam is about the scam e-mails that people receive daily. The Internet is flooded with e-mails promising money-making business proposals, lottery win notifications, and fabulous inheritances. This is the story of how one man's involvement with such an Internet scam ruined his life. Before I started shooting, I myself exchanged a few e-mails with real scammers from Nigeria and Ivory Coast. They even send me “documents” certifying all kinds of positions and deals that they have. The inclusion of this real correspondence with the scammers gave an added level of realism to my film.

Why did you decide to make a film about this topic?
It is a real-life story and it could be related to anybody, all over the world. Everybody gets those kind of e-mails nowadays and there is never a happy ending for those who bite the bait. I was inspired by somebody's drama. Plus, I was in my last year of college, majoring in Motion Image, and we had to do a diploma project. I had everything in mind since last summer and it was just a matter of putting it on paper first, and then on film.

Do you know someone who fell for it?
Yes, my best friend. He lost all his savings after being victimised. I will never forget the look on his face when he was telling me about it. His tragedy inspired me to create this movie. He's 35 now and lives in Vancouver.

Do you think people are just stupid for falling for it?
People are naive and is in our nature to be happy when receive something for free. Imagine this: a scammer from Nigeria sends a bulk e-mail to a million e-mail addressses saying: “You could get 1.5 million dollars”. Out of a million people, there are always four or five who believe it… that's 0.0001%, but if they each lose $20,000 each, that's more than enough for the crook.

If you had the choice, how would you punish these people?
Fair trial, but let's not forget that they take advantage of the naivety and stupidity of some people. It's not robbing at gunpoint. As a 'business partner', you should always look at your chances of winning millions of dollars overnight. Anyhow, because the scams got so complex and very believable I decided to deconspire in the movie how they work. The point is that I already got threatening messages in my movie's inbox - in bad English saying “Wrong choyce to make movie” and “You not should do it”. Stuff like that. I just decided to ignore them. If I die, you'll know why (kidding).

What needs to be done to clamp down on this?
It's hard because the scam is been around for over 20 years, first with hard copy letters. Unfortunately now, with the Internet, the “market” is 10 times bigger.

People can pay $9.99 to download your movie. How do they know this is not just another scam?
If I would scam I would do it for hundreds of thousands, not for $9.99.

How the hell did you manage to make it for just $180?
First of all, I got all my actors to perform for free. I told them that if the movie makes it big or gets seen by somebody important could be their ticket to fame. Or, even if is not going to get big, it would be a good piece for their portfolio. They all agreed, one by one. I did the same thing with my crew, too. They were all on board soon. Next, as I said, I was in my last year of school. I was lucky to get the camera, the lights, and the mics for free - and we started! I edited the movie myself so that was no cost either. I packaged it and designed the cover myself,as well. Basically, I produced, wrote, directed,and edited the movie - kinda like Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi.

What do you make of the response the film has had?
It exceeded my expectations. Messages from all over the world, selling copies all over the world, winning festivals, it's been awesome…

Do you have a distributor yet?
For 419, no, I don't, but I am looking for one. Whoever is interested can contact me through the movie's website. I got two offers to sell the movie exclusive and non-exclusive, but I am debating. I haven't taken a decision yet, maybe I'll get more offers.

What message do you think the movie sends to other budding filmmakers?
I won a film festival in Virginia with a $180 budget movie. The message? It's possible!

Has the movie caught the eye of anyone in Hollywood yet?
419: the Nigerian Scam was selected to be screened at the West Hollywood International Film Festival not too long ago. I hope somebody important saw it and if they did and they like it, I'd invite them to let me know!

What's next?
I have a script that I work on and it's almost done. I am still looking for the right partners. The story it's about how nowadays the computer screws up people's minds, developing virtual social skills versus real life skills.