Buddha in Africa
Director: Nicole Schafer
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The past few decades have seen Chinese investment pour into Africa. While some question the strings that may come attached to this investment, many presidents herald it as a new dawn for the continent.
During his opening address at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Beijing last year, our very own Cyril Ramaphosa refuted “the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa as our detractors would have us believe” because there was evidence of “tangible and lasting benefits to the African and Chinese people”.
An interesting expansion of Chinese influence has been the Amitofo Care Centre (ACC), where children – many orphans – are taught Mandarin Chinese, Buddhism, and given new names. It’s a sort of “soft power” that runs alongside China’s economic policies, trade and foreign resource extraction in the continent.
South African director Nicole Schafer’s stunning Buddha in Africa, the opening film for this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, offers a nuanced, fly-on-the-wall glimpse of one particular ACC in Blantyre, Malawi.
Here, children wake up at the crack of dawn for rigorous temple sessions and attend gruelling kung fu lessons. They’re even given new Chinese names.
ACC school principal Master Hui Liu seems to care for the children, but at times can hardly conceal his disdain for Malawi’s “uncivilised” people:
“Now that you are part of ACC, you must follow the Buddhist commandment, and follow our ways. Because only in this way will donors continue to support us. You may decide you don’t like this way, and don’t want the opportunity to study abroad later; you don’t want to learn the civilisation and the advanced thoughts of the world; you prefer to go back to your tribes.”
It’s all too familiar, echoing white colonialism when black children were ripped from their homes and put into missionary schools where they were spoon-fed European Christianity and a hatred of themselves that many are still coming to terms with today.
The children at the school live in a strange world where their home country cannot give them opportunities for advancement, and they must turn to a foreign school for a future.
Schafer homes in on one of the school’s star pupils – Enock, Chinese name: Alu. After gruelling training, Enock has managed to excel in kung fu at the school. Subsequently, he is paraded around the world as an example of ACC’s success with African children.
During a particularly uncomfortable part of the documentary, some of the school’s children are flown to America to appeal for more donations for the school.
During a theatre piece, images of emaciated Africans are flashed on a screen. Half of these images are not even of Malawians, or taken in this decade. One of them is, in fact, the famous photo of the vulture and the starved little girl, taken in Ethiopia in 1993 by photographer Kevin Carter.
Then, an Amitofo student re-enacts crying next to his sick, starving mother. He puts out a steel bowl for food as she dies next to him. Luckily, ACC is there to save the day.
By the end, the mostly Taiwanese audience is in tears, the donors are beaming, and one promises to give “another 100 000” (I’m assuming Taiwanese dollars) to the school.
China’s relationship with Africa is still very new, and in Buddha in Africa we see how even the best intentions often lead to the proliferation of stereotypes.
Later, Schafer captures a worrying physical altercation between a pupil and the school’s disciplinarian kung fu teacher. It’s a shocking, hold-your-breath film moment, and a testament to the wide scope of Schafer’s presence at the school and her prowess as a documentary maker.
Depending on how you read it, this documentary is either an urgent look at China’s soft domination of African nations through its children. Or it’s the picture of a Chinese school trying to make a difference – but often getting it wrong – in a country where the cultural differences are vast. Either way, it’s an incredibly balanced and compelling piece of film making and the questions it raises are only becoming more urgent.
- For tickets to the Encounters screenings, go here