Sunday 2 October 2011

Continental grift: "When China Met Africa"

Documentarist siblings Mark and Nick Francis follow their breakthrough Black Gold with When China Met Africa, a brisk study of another aspect of our newly globalised world: the huge investment in farms and construction businesses China is presently making across the African continent. The Francises' earlier film had a crusading intent - poking through the coffee beans being brewed up on the high street, and in doing so imploring audiences to check where their chai was coming from exactly - but this follow-up's brief is primarily observational: it sits back and charts the early stages of a new and potentially powerful alliance, spotting the teething problems encountered along the way.

While politicians and diplomats gladhand one another at international summits, tension is felt in the fields of Zambia, where Chinese bosses convey in broken English their dissatisfaction with the workers' progress, and we start to wonder to what extent these developments constitute a new form of economic slavery. The workers, for their part, complain that too much is expected of them, and that they've been altogether poorly provided for, while their employers struggle to resolve even banal disputes over equipment. As made apparent by a kerosene spill at one construction site, health and safety is a nightmare: the Africans race to fill bowls and containers with free fuel for their lamps, while their bosses hurry about covering up the mess with soil. Behind the scenes, the suits and bureaucrats - raised on Sun Tzu, declaring "the marketplace is harsh, just like the battlefield" - press on regardless.

The film remains scrupulously neutral, unwilling to editorialise on whether this neo-colonialism is entirely good or bad, and - if it isn't - whether you or I have any power to stop it; it secures access to high-level meetings seemingly just to reinforce the idea we don't usually get access to high-level meetings. The results are interesting - affording us the sensation of eavesdropping on trade talk, getting the skinny on how our planet will be shaped in the coming decades - but somewhat limited in its aims and impact, particularly when set against 2009's extraordinary Last Train Home, a more human and expansive depiction of the heightened Chinese work ethic. By way of compensation, the Francises carry over from Black Gold their acute visual sense, contrasting underdeveloped African outposts with the futuristic metropoli where the brokers and moneymen negotiate the fate of millions, and - in both locations - making much of the posters, murals and banners that seek to impose Asian business ideals on their immediate surroundings. As one Zambian exec states, the writing is, in every sense, on the wall. This would appear China's world now; the rest of us are merely living in it.

When China Met Africa opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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