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A year ago, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art put together a wonderful weekly African film series in honor of black history month.  It mixed classics with new releases, including the wonderful Nigerian/South African thriller, Man on Ground, one of my favorite movies produced in Africa.

This year, the museum’s black history month activities are much less ambitious.  One of the few events that interested me, a screening of the documentary ‘When China met Africa’, was held in conjunction with the Freer Gallery (the Asian art museum) this evening.  The film got a fair amount of press when it was first released, and although I couldn’t recall any of the critics’ views, I went into the film with relatively high expectations.

Perhaps the most impressive point to note was the high level of attendance.  There were only a few open seats and the crowd was significantly more diverse than I would have expected for a Smithsonian event– both racially and generationally.

The film is primarily set in Zambia, with some scenes in China as well, and follows three characters –

  • A Chinese man who has settled in Zambia with his family and operates a commercial farm.  The filmmakers got impressively candid scenes of his mother berating the help in the fields and his wife holding a roll call in the morning behind a screen.  Towards the end of the movie their humanity is somewhat redeemed by a touching moment where the wife laments her position, a complaint brought on by the success of a couple she has seen on a tv show.
  • The Chinese foreman of a Chinese company that has been contacted to rehabilitate a major highway.  The film appears to have been shot in 2009 (Rupiah Banda was President at the time and makes an appearance) and financial constraints mean that the company only smooths over potholes rather than resurfacing the entire road.  Compelling footage juxtaposes the sadza/mealie meal fare of the laborers with a Chinese feast held before the overseers return back to Asia and wrap up their work.
  • The lone Zambian character is the Minister of Trade and Industry.  He is seen attempting to promote Chinese investment in the non-Copper mining industry and hotel sector.  The filmmakers accompany him on a note very interesting visit to China and a similarly non-compelling hosting of a senior Chinese dignitary in Zambia.

The film, notable for the absence of third party narration, was certainly solid, though my expectations were probably a bit too high.  Particularly irksome is the use of Africa in the title when the film exclusively focused on Chinese – Zambian interactions.  One of the directors came on at the conclusion of the film for a Skype interview, however I, and most of the audience, did not stick around.

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