Film Africa (2): ‘When China Met Africa’

Bleeding, splintering, RGB pixels paint repeated images of handshakes and embraces — filmed off a television screen, or from existing filmed material — until they expand to a short panorama of the China-Africa Summit held in Beijing in 2006. Rapturously applauding, celebratory faces of powerful men, presidents and heads of state are seen, to a bellowing accompaniment: “…We, the leaders of China and Africa have gathered in Beijing to renew our friendship. Both China and Africa are cradles of human civilisation and lands of great promise. Common destiny and common goals have brought us together. China will remain a close friend, reliable partner and good brother to Africa.”

This does not sound like a concise introduction to one of the longest handshakes in the history of business deals, it instead reverberates around the room like matrimonial rhetoric. The summit, presented as a celebration of their fifty years of diplomatic relations, allowed for the further forging of the Sino-Africa bilateral economic and trade agreements. An exhibition of the oft quoted ‘win-win equation’ — a sterilisation of reality that all players are passionate to uphold, despite its eroding disguise.

By avoiding academic abstractions such as: neo-colonialism, geopolitics and paradigmatic shifts in economic power, the success of Marc and Nick Francis’s latest observational documentary ‘When China Met Africa‘, screening at Film Africa in London, unravels by undercutting these heightened contexts. They circumvent the clamor of voices participating in the discussion of China’s co-authorship in Africa, and instead refurbish the story by taking us straight to the ground.

We are plunged three years on from the summit in Zambia and introduced to three of the films protagonists. Separated only by their position in the multi-layered stratums of the Sino-African relationship: Mr Lui, a gaunt, chain smoking, impatient Chinese farmer and entrepreneur; Mr Li, a Chinese project manager for China Henan International Corporation (tasked with overseeing the resurfacing of a 323km road linking Serenje and Mansa); and the jovial Zambian, Trade, Commerce and Industry Minister, Felix Mutati, who always wears a buoyancy, seemingly unencumbered by the significance and gravity of his job. More PR than MP, he wholeheartedly welcomes and facilities any meeting that will propagate investment in Zambia.

The photography is unfiltered, unhampered realism and this recording produces monotonic, muted shades, manufacturing a foreboding listlessness, that soaks into every pixel, as if each scene is veiled. The Francis brothers’ secondary concentration is in the depiction of the ground itself, the soil. Concentrated close up shots peer at the earth united with visceral sounds, as it is brushed, scraped, sliced, sown, ploughed, plumbed and resurfaced. Often low enough to smell, these interluding shots of the voiceless earth, pregnant with resources and opportunities, allows the soil to emerge as the forth protagonist. As it is leached of its monetary value.

There is no commentary, which allows each character to remain in first-person narration. This prompts a series of intimate portrayals and harvests the most insightful, uncensored monologues. While in Mutati’s office during his first introduction to the viewer, he differentiates between West and Eastern business practises, claiming,

When I sit with investors from the Western world they do a PowerPoint presentation about projections, cash-flows, profit, and loss accounts, income statements, balance sheets, risk assessments and all these flamboyant graphs. I’ve never seen those with the Chinese. They probably do them on their own, but when they come here, they just ask me “what are the incentives?” Where is a piece of land, where shall we go and begin work?

At a local market that seems dominated by Chinese chicken farmers, Mr Lui unloads his most unapologetic views on neo liberalism and the free-market that wouldn’t sound peculiar in any financial district wine bar:

Survival of the fittest. The competition is always there, and the weak ones will be weeded out after a while. It’s not a problem. The market is harsh, just like a battlefield. The winner survives.

The entire film has the qualities of a persistent dawn, with a fractured air bringing with it a faint smell of deception, like just gone off milk. It serves to amplify any media report read thereafter, concerning Zambia or any other country in Africa bound in a relationship with the Chinese. Most recently, in August this year, Zambian miners killed a Chinese supervisor and seriously wounded another over a pay dispute at Collum coal mine. With well documented accounts of Chinese-owned mines having increasingly dangerous working conditions, slackness in safety, lack of adequate equipment for workers and lower pay than many other foreign-owned mines. As this film suggests, there is an accumulating suspicion of the Chinese in Africa and the possibility of further manifestations of friction on the ground seems inevitable.

In the concluding shot of the film Mr Lui, stands grandiose and contemplative in his newly acquired land. “After I’m gone, my children will still be here to continue my work. I bought this farm for my children, my three children. In the future, they will hire workers here and continue to work on it.”

* Africa is a Country is a media partner of Film Africa, the UK’s largest annual festival of African cinema and culture (starting in November 2012 for 10 days showing 70 African films) in London. “When China Met Africa” screens Thu, 8 November 2012, 6:30pm The Ritzy.


4 thoughts on “Film Africa (2): ‘When China Met Africa’

  1. Reblogged this on DrSapna and commented:
    This is one of my favourite blogs. Always taking me into territories and discourses I sort of know but never really care to dissect. Just because…I’m lazy. And this film here seems to tell an interesting story of colonisation, neoliberalism and further exploitation within Africa by a country/power everyone is afraid of. I know from listening to stories told to me by a very bright young Ethiopian man who recently visited Ethiopia for the first time in his 23 years (his family came to New Zealand as ‘refugees’, a term I don’t like to use) of how the Indians and Chinese are appropriating land in and around Addis Ababa and exploiting the locals. A new kind of non-white racism and capitalism. Read on. Hopefully I shall get to watch the documentary too.

  2. We screened this documentary at Yale last year and had a fairly lively discussion afterward. The directors could have picked a different title; the film is about Zambia and Zambia only, which is not a bad thing, and the film should be praised for avoiding heavy-handedness and its letting thru of unfiltered African voices.. I remember one scene in particular where the workers are eating and complaining about the food, arguing that it is not filling nor, really, very edible. Nice insight on a very local level that cannot be broken down by such gigantic words like China and Africa.

  3. Nobody can ride your back unless it is bent. The Zambians need to always question every deal and get the best for themselves. They have been raped by companies such as Glencore. We can blame colonization for that. But if they are raped by the Chinese, who can they blame?

    They can borrow a leaf from the Kenya-Chinese relationship in which Kenya has actually benefited more than the Chinese. In the end, the Chinese will supplant the west as Africa’s major trading partner. This is fact.

  4. Not sure about how I feel about this film. The Francis’ brothers production assistant, Solange Guo Chatelard, made a more insightful documentary about Chinese in Zambia for Aljazeera, called ‘King Cobra and the Dragon’. I felt that When China met Africa is highly biased and does not really portray chinese as individuals with families, but rather as neo-liberals willing to do anything for money. And, whereas i am not arguing that that is the case, there is a lot more to the story. In fact, Mr Liu, the chicken farmer from Lusaka, also features in Chatelard’s account… under a very different light.
    I guess it is very easy falling for a sensationalist approach and sketch out the terrible working conditions of in Chinese factories in Africa or other heartless practices.

    I wrote about the overlap of stories in Chinese in Africa documentaries, and Solange G. Chatelard provides (in the comments) a great insight to how these operate.

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