When Marc and Nick Francis came across Chinese workers building a road in the Ethiopian countryside in 2005, they felt like they were seeing the future. China’s footprint on Africa's soil was expanding in front of their eyes.
The film-makers had been interested in China since the 1990s, when Marc lived in Shenzhen. But it wasn’t until they encountered fast-growing Asian investment in Africa that they knew which story they wanted to tell, and how. “When China met Africa” follows three men in Zambia, who help to illustrate the Afro-Cino relationship: the country’s trade minister, Felix Mutati; a Chinese farm-owner; and a project manager for a Chinese multinational. The film explores the daily dependency and friction between them in their jobs.
China has recently become Africa’s largest trading partner, lending more money to the continent than the World Bank, so the film is a timely observation of geo-political change. “China’s foray into Africa is indicative of a wider shift in power from West to East,” says Nick, “and something we all need to try to understand”.
The brothers are drawn to deconstructing big global issues. Their last film, “Black Gold”, which premiered at the Sundance film festival, was about the struggle of one man against the multi-billion dollar coffee industry. It brought the topic to the attention of thousands. “When China met Africa”, now available on DVD, continues to travel on the international festival circuit.
More Intelligent Life interviewed the brothers over e-mail, and asked them about some of the challenges and revelations involved in making this film.
Why did you set the film in Zambia, and not in another African country—like Tanzania, Angola or Nigeria—that is also a big trade partner of China?
We chose to set the film in Zambia for three reasons. There was an interesting back story in that Zambia was the first African country to establish diplomatic ties with China and benefited from the TAZARA railway—Chairman Mao’s gift to connect landlocked Zambia to Tanzania’s port, Dar es Salaam. Second, in 2006, China declared its first ever special economic zone was to be established in Zambia, which demonstrated how Beijing viewed Zambia as a major African partner. Third, Zambia became the first African country where the role of the Chinese became a hot political issue driven by Michael Sata, who was former leader of the opposition and is now president.
The film is neutral but it makes clear that there are tensions and problems associated with this economic development. What is your view of the Africa-China relationship?
The Africa-China relationship is complex and multi-layered, and it’s still in its early stages. It is important to remember that what we are seeing is two very different civilisations coming together. Vast cultural gaps, differing work ethics and expectations exist between the Chinese and the Zambians. A lack of a common language isn’t helping the relationship. In the future, as more and more Chinese grow up in Africa, they will be able to bring a much deeper understanding to the continent. They will have the ability to communicate and manage cultural differences in a much better way.
In the film the Zambian trade minister talks about how Western officials are slow and bureaucratic. There is a sense of the growing redundancy of Western corporations and investment. Did you notice that? How did that make you feel, as Westerners?
As Westerners, it is a wake-up call that we are losing our place not just in Africa but in the world—all we can do is to try to understand what is going on and ask different questions. At the moment, we can’t compete with China’s pragmatism, determination, work ethic and long-term vision. China tends to think decades into the future, they are taking much greater risks and are able to speculate on projects in a way the West doesn’t and can’t. The West is still stuck in a colonial mindset, and approaches Africa in a patronising way that hasn’t changed for many, many years.
Our leaders tend to forget that the West’s insatiable appetite for cheaper consumer goods plays a role in China’s need for cheap resources. Many of the products that we use are made in China with raw materials extracted from Africa. We must begin to understand China more if we are to find a place in the world. We must start learning Chinese in our schools and asking the right questions.
What was the most challenging thing about making the film?
Gaining access to our stories was very difficult. We had to break through the perception that we were going to tell the same story as the news media does, which generally follows a very simplistic narrative that doesn’t give expression to the complexity of the relationship and the human stories at the heart of it. The other problem was communication—most of the time the Chinese and Zambians don’t have a common language. They often misunderstand each other. It was only after we shot the film and received the translations of the conversations that we could then piece together the story.
"When China met Africa" is out on DVD