Buddha in Africa, the opening film of the 21st Encounters SA International Documentary Festival, is a startling look at a Chinese orphanage in Malawi where children are taught Mandarin, Buddhism and kung fu, and given new names.
South African film maker Nicole Schafer hones in on Enock, whose kung fu skill has made him the school’s star pupil.
While much has been said about China’s economic power in Africa, this is a look at China’s soft power through the proliferation of its language, culture and religion. Schafer says the Amitofo Care Centre was “always very open and welcoming to me filming” – even of a violent incident between a pupil and teacher.
Parts of the documentary are uncomfortable to watch, including one scene in which the school holds a theatre performance for donors and flashes stereotypical images of starving African children in the background.
Asked how she felt while filming that, Schafer says: “I think it shows the contradictions between the different representations of Africa in the East. I was quite interested to see how Africa was being portrayed in China and Taiwan. For quite some time, we’ve been aware of Western portrayals that show Africa solely as poor and poverty stricken.
“I think the China-Africa relationship is a very new one. Part of the process of the film was to find ways to explore these different perceptions and start a conversation around trying to break down those prejudiced ideas.
“Enock, for instance, comes from a background where his community believes the Chinese eat people. I think it’s quite interesting how the school serves an important role in breaking down negative perceptions of the Chinese and, on the other hand, the staff who have come to Africa for the first time have had their perceptions of Africa challenged in meaningful ways,” she says.
“So, while the school’s coach is putting on this play that perpetuates a lot of stereotypes of Africa, he’s also learning and challenging some of his prejudices. It’s very much a two-way thing that reflects the beginning of this very new relationship. And, in many ways, it mirrors some of the aspects of the colonial past.”
In the film, the children look very unhappy, but Schafer says that she and her colleagues worked hard to ensure they presented a balanced portrayal of the life of the organisation.
“Enock, for example, is a happy guy. The fact that a lot of the scenes show the kids criticising the Chinese, or questioning the religion, or criticising the vegan diet ... it is really looking at it within the context of teenagers within a boarding school. It’s not a reflection on the organisation specifically, it’s more a reflection of these teenagers coming of age and questioning their upbringing.”
The school, she says, is “very strict” and the children wake up at 4.30am and have to be on time for temple.
“The film is more the story of a boy growing up between two very different cultures at a time when we’re seeing China’s expanding influence on the continent. How it fits into the Chinese neocolonial debate is very much up to the audience to decide,” Schafer says.
“Enock’s conflict in many ways mirrors the dilemma that African nations face – this whole idea of him having to weigh up the opportunities afforded by the Chinese on the one hand, and the sacrifices of losing his community and culture on the other.”