BY Omoy Lungange, 12:00am April 04, 2012,

Documentary, “When China Met Africa” Review

On Monday, March 26, I had the pleasure of watching the documentary film "When China Met Africa," directed, written and produced by sibling filmmakers Nick and Mark Francis. Through the focus of one country (Zambia) and the lives of three key characters: a Chinese farmer, a road builder, and a Zambia trade minister, the Francis brothers attempt to investigate the implications of China’s expansion and investments in Africa. The film also examines the impact of international trade agreements on ordinary people, and the clash of cultures in a globalized economy.

In the beginning, the documentary presents a few striking moments, where we are given a fly on the wall view of the personal relationship between China and Zambia. On a micro level, we see the small-time Chinese entrepreneurs joking with their Zambian employees, often working alongside them in harmony. Adversely, we are introduced to financiers halting progress halfway through projects, employers failing to pay their Zambian employees, and in one instance, Zambian workers being dismissed for having diarrhea.

On the macro level, the film focuses heavily on passive-aggressive boardroom meetings. This is better reflected through Zambian Trade Minister Mutati, who is easygoing, cheerful, timid yet passionately driven by a hope of a better future for his country, whereas his Chinese equivalents come across as very cut-throat, ambitious, and persuasive: qualities reflected in their oh-so charming female interpreters.

The audience is furthermore introduced to many heights of Chinese investments, from investment fairs in central Zambia, to critical infrastructure projects such as buildings, refineries, ports, hotels, roads, bridges, airports, and railroads.

Equally important, the documentary does a marvelous job in searching out the reality and hardships of life in Zambia for both its impoverished citizens as well as its new visitors, pausing to focus on the smaller, everyday details: Chinese emigrants struggling with the climate and the language, or in one eye-opening scene, Zambian workers gathering around a small oil spill with plastic cans eager to scoop up every last drop.

The film’s camera work is undoubtedly one of its strength, emphasizing the grueling nature of daily life while also cleverly pointing out the vast gap between the shiny Chinese streets and skylines, and the dusty, impoverished local Zambian counterparts.

The documentary however, lost its charm through its title, "When China Met Africa." This title is extremely misleading for the reason that the Francis brothers focused exclusively on China’s economic investment in Zambia rather than on the continent as a whole. The title is deceptive as the case study of China/Africa relations are drawn from one country (Zambia), subsequently concluding that China’s relation with Zambia is the epitome for its relations in the continent as a whole. "When China met ZAMBIA" would have been a more accurate title.

While the film does a great job revealing the benefits the Chinese and Zambian elites accrue from Chinese foreign investments, it displays their counterparts, the local Chinese and Zambians struggling to make ends meet and working in tough conditions to make a living and to complete projects signed and sealed by the elites. From these scenes alone, one gets the sense that what is happening among state and international actors is not befitting people on the ground; more specifically, the small-time Chinese entrepreneurs and local Zambians, leaving a sour taste in the mouths.

The movie also shows how the local Zambians businesses are being undercut because of all the economies end scale which Chinese companies are able to bring. This in turn places both groups at a disadvantage and one group crawling over the other to get ahead within structures that are inherently unequal. For instance, many local Zambians are struggling to make profit, this is because their Chinese counterparts are able to be more competitive in the marketplace and they come with the advantage of more capital earned from back home. In the film, the farmer supports this fact by asserting that he is able to beat the competition because he’s got a long-term vision, access to capital which some of the local counterparts don’t have. "Market is like a battlefield and the winner survive,” he says.

What does this do to local Zambians? Some are driven out of business while others end up working for the Chinese for very low wages.

The documentary lastly makes it clear that even as the people try to learn to understand each other, there are challenges that extend beyond their day-to-day situations such as linguistic barrier. For instance, many of the dedicated Chinese engineers in the film address their insecurities in speaking and understanding fluent English, and this creates distance between them and the locals Zambians. 

There is little narrative interference with this subject matter, and as a result the audience is left confused at certain points. Moreover, in many ways, the characters own voices effectively and effortlessly carry the film. Then again, no matter how many stories you read or hear about the farmer, the road builder, and the Zambia trade minister, you're still left wondering what the day-to-day perspective of the 750,000+ local Zambian workers are and how they are faring with the new changes taking place within their surroundings.

Nevertheless, I applaud the filmmakers for taking the first step at giving us such a powerful observational film about some of the implications of China in Africa. The film is bound to spark many great discussuons and will encourage people to look more critically at this recent phenomenon. It is my hope that the fillmakers do a follow-up to this film where they explore China in other African countries.

Last Edited by: Updated: June 19, 2018


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