Tuesday, 1 March 2011

When China met Africa

By Neil McCulloch

I saw a fascinating film, When China Met Africa, in the Brighton Documentary Film Festival (SEE) this weekend.

The film, by Nick and Marc Francis, follows the lives of two Chinese entrepreneurs in Zambia – one a farm owner, the other an employee of a Chinese firm responsible for building a major road. 

The film drew on research by IDS Globalisation Fellow Jing Gu. It gives a subtle and nuanced picture of the lives of Chinese entrepreneurs (for a different perspective see the BBC’s The Chinese Are Coming documentary last week). It shows the clash of cultures and the resentment by Zambian workers, but it also shows the pressure that Chinese entrepreneurs feel under. It’s clear that the Zambian government is in awe of Chinese firms’ ability to deliver on major projects much faster than their western counterparts. 

But perhaps the single feature that made the documentary distinctive in my view was that it had no voice over. Everything was simply observed, with the individuals speaking their mind in their own words. This was an extraordinary challenge because both the Chinese and the Zambians were speaking in local dialects unknown to the filmmakers. Thus Nick and Marc Francis didn’t really know what their film was about until after they had made it and read the translations of the dialogue. This gives the film an authenticity that is much more compelling than a more directed documentary.

Talking to the filmmakers at the end, they said that their next film will look at tax havens.  Hopefully they will be able to draw on the work of the new International Centre for Taxation and Development (ICTD) led by IDS Fellow Mick Moore, as well as the campaign on tax havens by Christian Aid.  Watch this space.


Alvaro said...

I also had the opportunity to watch this extraordinary film during the See Festival last weekend. In my opinion the directors did a great effort to present the Chinese presence in Africa as it is, exposing the good and the ‘not that good’ consequences of the Chinese engagement in the continent. By not using a voice over the documentary, an open door is left for discussion and reinforces the right of the audience to make up their minds without being manipulated by the filmmakers/producers. This impression contrasts with the one I got when I saw the ‘Chinese are coming’… in my opinion a less serious, less researched and far more biased and manipulative documentary.

Jing Gu said...

My field research suggests that the increase in Chinese investment in Africa is a result of both domestic and global factors. The ferocious domestic competitiveness and continuing structural adjustment of the Chinese economy are the context of firms’ decisions to go to Africa. Generally speaking, Chinese firms see Africa as an opportunity to be risked rather than perceiving it as a problematic investment ground. For many Chinese firms, Africa is ‘the last golden land’ of economic opportunity.
Many Chinese entrepreneurs that we interviewed, reflecting upon the ability of Chinese firms to survive and grow, drew upon a Chinese saying; ‘If we have a little rain, then the seeds become shoots; a little bit of sunshine then the shoots grow robustly!’ (见点雨露就发芽, 给点阳光就灿烂)

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