Antonio Dikele Distefano on Originating ‘Zero,’ Netflix’s Milestone Original About Black Youth in Italy (EXCLUSIVE)

Nick Vivarelli
·4 min read

Italian author Antonio Dikele Distefano, who grew up in the northern Italian city of Ravenna, is the originator of new Netflix Original series “Zero,” which marks the first series centered around the present-day lives of Black Italian youth. The groundbreaking skein centers on a shy Black kid named Zero who can become invisible, and uses his superpower to try and save Milan’s Barrio neighborhood from gentrification.

The 28-year-old Distefano, who was born in Italy to Angolan parents, co-wrote the series, which was inspired by one of his books. The show was also created by comic book artist and screenwriter Menotti together with Stefano Voltaggio (who is also its creative executive producer), Massimo Vavassori, Carolina Cavalli and Lisandro Monaco.

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The eight-episode “Zero” is produced by Fabula Pictures with the participation of Milan’s Red Joint Film. It will drop on Netflix on April 21. The episodes are directed by Paola Randi, Ivan Silvestrini, Margherita Ferri and Mohamed Hossameldin.

The cast is made up of young, new Italian talent, and includes: Giuseppe Dave Seke (Zero/Omar), Haroun Fall (Sharif), Beatrice Grannò (Anna), Richard Dylan Magon (Momo), Daniela Scattolin (Sara), Madior Fall (Hymn), Virgina Diop (Awa), Alex Van Damme (Thierno), Frank Crudele (Sandokan), Giordano de Plano (Ricci), Ashai Lombardo Arop (Marieme), Roberta Mattei (La Vergine), Miguel Gobbo Diaz (Rico) and Livio Kone (Honey).

Distefano spoke exclusively to Variety about the challenges of getting his story on screen and its symbolic importance.

How did the project originate?

I was contacted by Netflix through my editor, who told me: ‘They want to depict your world.’ Then due to various circumstances, I ended up in contact with Stefano Voltaggio who wanted to bring a project to Netflix. We joined forces with Menotti and Massimo Vavassori and we wrote a treatment that we sent to Netflix. After a bit of back and forth, we managed to get it greenlit. Then, due to the pandemic it took us a while to get it on the screen.

Zero is set in a local world — Milan’s Barrio neighborhood — but it has universal aspects such as the fight against gentrification. How did you adapt your novel to the series?

The series is inspired by my novel, but the novel is different. I have to be honest…The world of the Barrio is a world that we discovered when we started writing the series. The first two weeks of writing we were in Milan and I proposed to the writing group that we go to the Barrio and talk to kids there. Since half the writing room are from Rome, they expected it to be run-down and degraded. Instead, the grass was freshly cut; it was all clean. But we met a group of kids who told us they were being pushed out of the neighborhood. That’s where we got the initial idea.

There is undoubtedly a huge symbolic significance to this show. But how much of a groundbreaker do you think it’s really going to be?

My goal from the beginning was that the whole thing of us having Black protagonists [on the show] should last for just a week. I really hope that [once it premieres], people will just ask me: ‘What’s going to happen in the next season?’ [if we ever do it], or, ‘Why does Zero do this or that?’ That is my goal. To get to the point where it’s not just about being the first series in which protagonists are Black Italian kids. That said, of course it has a symbolic significance. The invisibility metaphor is very important in our society. If you exist, you can recriminate about the fact that you haven’t been chosen for something.

When I started working on this project, I kept being told: ‘There aren’t any Black actors’ [in Italy]. Everybody assumed there weren’t any, and therefore we couldn’t tell stories about Black kids. But what happens now that we have them? That’s the question that ‘Zero’ is going to raise. Will something change? Now that we [Black Italian talent] exist, a lot more questions will be raised. Now, if we are not taken into consideration, then you have a bigger problem.

How do you feel about the fact that ‘Zero’ will reach audiences all over the world? Is it something you thought of while writing it?

When I work, I always build things brick by brick; I never think of the whole wall, because that blocks me. So I am just starting to realize the type of reach that ‘Zero’ has. I have Angolan origins, but I’ve never really been in contact with people in Angola. In the past few days lots of people have been writing me from there. So now I’m starting to realize how important this is. It’s what I was telling you before: it’s about the importance of existing.

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