Against All Odds: Bringing Multi-faceted China-Africa Stories to the Screen
In Conversation with Chinese Documentarian Yong Zhang (English version)
Xiaoning Lu: Since 2018, you have made several documentaries about China-Africa relations, including Africans in Yiwu, TAZARA: A Journey without an End, and Bobby’s Factory. At the moment, you are a very well-known Chinese filmmaker documenting China-Africa cultural exchanges and experiences. I wonder what motivated you to choose this particular path of filmmaking.
Yong Zhang: This can be traced back to 2012, when I started my PhD study at the Beijing Film Academy. I have always had an interest in cultural geography. However, I noticed that in the geography of cinema, Africa had yet to receive attention from Chinese film scholars. I couldn’t find any Chinese scholars’ monographs or dissertations on African cinema at that time. I had so many questions: Where can we locate African cinema? What are the distinct styles and characteristics of African films? These questions propelled me into a journey of exploring Africa.
Before I set foot on the African continent in 2015, I had learnt about Africa from various sources, which associated this continent with vocabularies such as blood, violence, poverty, and AIDS. One primary source of my knowledge about Africa was Hollywood blockbusters, such as Blood Diamond (2008), Hotel Rwanda (2004), and Black Hawk Down (2001). After arriving in Africa, I realised that this continent had been demonised through stereotypical representations, and I began to ask myself what I, as a filmmaker, could do about it.
Ever since I started my fieldwork in Africa, I have had continuing opportunities to observe “real” life in Africa and to learn about more stories related to Chinese people in Africa and Africans in China. Later, I started to explore how to build a bridge of communication and understanding between the Chinese and the Africans through creative works. For this task, the documentary is the best medium, and that’s how I started making documentaries about China-Africa relations.
Lu: Besides being a filmmaker, you are a film scholar. I read your 2018 article “Africa on the Chinese Screen: Problems and Reflections” with much interest. This article discusses four recent Chinese feature films set in Africa, including the immensely popular Wolf Warrior II. I am intrigued by your observations that these films somehow reinforce Hollywood’s stereotypical depiction of Africa. As we know, China has developed extensive engagement with Africa in the past two decades. However, when telling stories about Africa onscreen, Chinese feature film directors have chosen to follow Hollywood narrative conventions rather than drawing on their direct observations of African realities. How have these directors found themselves in this situation?
Zhang: There are many contributing factors. The first is related to Africa-themed movies produced by Hollywood. These movies have greatly influenced ordinary Chinese audiences’ perception of Africa and directly influenced Chinese filmmakers. When the latter started their Africa-themed projects, they unconsciously imitated some Hollywood blockbusters. Anyone familiar with Hollywood films can quickly discover the close connection between Wolf Warrior II and Hollywood productions, including Black Hawk Down (2001), Tears of the Sun (2003), Hotel Rwanda (2004), and Blood Diamond (2008). At the narrative level, Wolf Warrior II synthesises many of the elements common to those Hollywood blockbusters, such as violence, ethnic conflicts, hunger, poverty, and disease. There are also a few scenes of wild animals on the African savannahs rather awkwardly inserted into the film narrative. It is no exaggeration that you can find all kinds of conventional Western imaginations of Africa in this Chinese movie. Since Wolf Warrior II uses Hollywood and Hong Kong action and visual effects experts and expensive military props, it creates an even grander blood-and-gore spectacle than Hollywood productions. The film has become a Chinese version of an Africa-themed Hollywood movie, blurring the boundaries between Chinese blockbusters and Hollywood films.
The second factor has to do with the film market. China’s domestic market is the primary driver for Africa-themed Chinese movies. Due to its narrative defects, it is not surprising that Wolf Warrior II only managed to get RMB 10 million at the overseas box office. This performance contrasts with its exorbitant gain of RMB 5 billion at the Chinese box office. As for the producers, if they can tap China’s massive domestic film market and rely on domestic audiences’ growing consumption power, their investment is bound to yield a profitable return. Therefore, they would rather pay more attention to China’s small towns or tier 4 market than the overseas film market. Although Wolf Warrior II has been exhibited outside China, overseas audiences are not its target market. Here are the paradoxes: while Chinese filmmakers wish to introduce their films on the global stage, they take the domestic market as their primary concern. While they want to focus on Africa, they do not have the necessary attitude to film Africa seriously and only want to use African subjects as a selling point.
The third factor is fundamental: neither Chinese filmmakers nor Chinese audiences understand Africa sufficiently. Africa-focused Chinese films have not caught up with the social development in African countries. In the meantime, limited by their knowledge, ordinary Chinese have particular expectations of Africa-focused films. These inevitably result in a chasm between China’s grand narrative about nationalism and its cinematic depiction of Africa. Suppose there is a conventional Chinese comedy or romance film revolving around ordinary African people. It will probably not be popular among Chinese audiences because it differs from the familiar image of Africa that has been deeply ingrained in the collective imagination. The current state of Africa-themed Chinese films reveals the importance of having arts and humanities exchanges while building Sino-Africa economic cooperation. Whether an African-themed movie with a distinctly Chinese style or a Sino-African coproduction, a good film is predicated upon Chinese people’s better understanding of Africa.
Lu: Since your directorial debut, Africans in Yiwu, you seem to take a particular interest in documenting ‘intercultural’ aspects of China-Africa relations. Why do you prefer making documentary films? What is the most challenging part of making documentaries about China-Africa relations?
Zhang: In my mind, documentary film is the best medium to promote mutual understanding between Chinese and African peoples. By following my documentary subjects and constant observation, I gain a more direct and deeper understanding of African societies and Sino-Africa exchanges. Making documentaries also allows me to bring multi-faceted Africa to audiences. In addition, it is more costly to make feature films than documentaries in China. Feature film directors must consider market returns. Since making documentaries requires less financial investment, I can afford the financial risk if my documentaries do not have a good market return.
What I found most challenging in making documentaries on China-Africa relations is the lack of an appreciative audience. I must remain an idealist to carry on with what I am doing. Many Chinese audiences are interested in topics such as wild animals in Africa. There are many such short videos on Chinese TikTok and Kuaishou. Some documentaries which capitalise on African exoticism, including the negative aspects of African societies, have also attracted hits. Since my documentaries are primarily about social and cultural aspects of China-Africa relations, they appear a bit odd in this group of Chinese films.
Lu: Your films Africans in Yiwu, Chinese Meet Africa, TAZARA: A Journey without an End and Bobby’s Factory all deal with Sino-African interactions. What is your specific take on each of those documentaries? Did you pick particular themes?
Zhang: Africans in Yiwu depict many aspects of the lives of Africans in China, including their business and charity activities, their marriages, their education, their predilection for gourmet food, and their involvement in arts. The film aims to dismantle the stereotypes of Africans by telling uplifting stories of these industrious and entrepreneurial individuals. In terms of narrative style, we emphasise showing “Africans telling their stories in their voices”.
As a sequel to Africans in Yiwu, Chinese Meet Africa keeps the same narrative style but tells the other side of the China-Africa story. The film selects representative examples from over 1 million Chinese in Africa. It tells various stories of hardworking and enterprising overseas Chinese who help connect China with Africa. My original intention in making these two documentaries is to follow the well-established international narrative convention of telling the small stories of ordinary people. I hope to tell the individual stories of “Africans in China” and “Chinese in Africa” well so that audiences receive them well at home and abroad. This way, we can hopefully break the Western monopoly of public opinion on China-Africa issues.
The central characters of Bobby’s Factory first appeared in my documentary Africans in Yiwu. Because of my first documentary film, I developed a friendship with Bobby and his Chinese wife, and they appreciated my creative work. In 2017, Bobby changed his profession from being a chef to running a cosmetic factory targeting the Western African market. I realised that this is an exciting change. As far as I know, most African business people in China are intermediaries, and Bobby is the first African who opens a factory in China. Therefore I decided to continue to film him. After filming him for a year, the Covid pandemic suddenly broke out. The foreign trade factories encountered unprecedented challenges, and Bobby’s factory was no exception. His story then became my first feature-length documentary.
As for TAZARA: A Journey without an End, it is very different from my other films with regards to thematic focus. Although I had been making documentaries on China-Africa relations, I was used to creating micro-narratives. Initially, I felt tremendous pressure when dealing with this grand historical subject as TAZARA is China’s first major foreign aid project. Later, I made two field trips and found some residents, tourists and Chinese experts along the railway. Unlike other Chinese documentaries on TAZARA, my film adopts a micro perspective. It tells stories of the ordinary people along the TAZARA, thereby constructing a grand historical narrative of China-Africa relations.
Lu: The West remains the third party, even for Chinese documentary filmmakers. TAZARA: A Journey without an End is a good example, as you made this film to directly respond to the British documentary African Railway by journalist Sean Langan. Western filmmakers’ representations of Africa are undoubtedly conditioned by individual directors’ knowledge of Africa and the prevailing ideology in the West. In China, “Sino-African friendship” has been the dominant discourse promoted by the Chinese government to characterise China-Africa relations since the mid-20th century. In recent years China made a massive investment in Africa. Although the Chinese government suggests the current China-Africa cooperation as a win-win South-South partnership, such discourse does not seem convincing to many people in the West. We often see that China is depicted as a ‘neo-coloniser’ in Western mass media. As a documentary filmmaker, how do you position yourself in this context?
Zhang: Indeed, in recent years, some Western media spearheaded by BBC made quite a few documentaries criticising China’s investment in Africa, for example, The Chinese Are Coming and African Railway. These documentaries tend to generalise some problems to foreground the negative image of China in Africa. Not only do Chinese audiences dislike such portrayals, but African audiences do not subscribe to that kind of viewpoint. The Chinese state media are on the other end of the spectrum. They are keen to produce grand narratives about China-Africa relations. They emphasise China’s aid to Africa but never touch upon the profits and benefits China has gained in those cooperations. As you said, those narratives do not hold persuasive power for international audiences.
In my filmmaking, I like to pay close attention to the diversity and complexity of China-Africa collaboration. Such cooperation is not one-dimensional, and I believe we should hold a cautious attitude or even resist any attempts that simplify matters into stereotypes. We can’t use black or white to characterise a person or a place, and this holds for African and Sino-African cooperation. When making documentaries, including Africans in Yiwu and Chinese Meet Africa, my team and I have used the “multiple themes, multiple characters, and multiple episodes” strategy. This strategy ensures we have a wide range of representations of China-Africa relations.
Moreover, we usually spend an extended period with our documentary subjects, and this is to avoid exoticising their stories from a voyeuristic perspective. Take my film Bobby’s Factory, for example. Compared to other Chinese or Western filmmakers who film African factories in China, my team and I have invested far more time in building a relationship with our documentary subjects and following up with them. Consequently, our film has a richer representation of Africans in China. For instance, this film, on the one hand, represents Bobby’s African identity and how he blends into the community made up of his Chinese employees; on the other, it tells a universal story. Bobby has been living in China for over ten years. During this period, he got married and had a child. He is a “China expert”. During the Covid pandemic he faced the same challenges that many Chinese bosses of similarly-sized foreign trade factories experienced. These were context-specific problems and had nothing to do with skin colour. Tencent video, a famous Chinese video streaming website, praises this documentary’s value in anthropological and sociological studies because we document, observe and present Bobby’s life as an element of the Chinese economic world.
Lu: It seems to me that your particular way of telling African stories involves decolonising screen culture at many different levels. Do you consciously develop a specific style in your documentaries to counter the visual language in relevant Western documentaries about China-Africa relations?
Zhang: I wouldn’t say that visual language in documentaries is complicated. I often remind my cameraman to avoid using high-angle or low-angle shots to film African subjects on the film set. Instead, we use eye-level shots to guide our audiences to view the Africans as their equals. At the narrative level, my documentaries such as TAZARA: A Journey Without An End, Bobby’s Factory and Chinese Meet Africa all focus on “small characters”. Even when documenting the mega infrastructure project of TAZARA, we did not interview many political leaders or high-ranking officials. We put much focus on ordinary Africans along the railway line. I prefer letting ordinary people or the subaltern tell their own stories, and I wish my films have a flavour of humanity and everydayness. In addition, we rarely use voice-over narration, as we do not want to speak on behalf of our characters.
Lu: Would you like to share with us what project you are working on now?
Zhang: I am working on the documentary Generation Z’s China-Africa Stories. Each instalment pairs one Chinese with one African person born after the 1990s and narrates stories arising from their interactions. I have been to Africa about ten times. What has struck me most is Generation Z. They exhibit surprising maturity when communicating with their counterparts. Compared to the older generation, they have access to more information and are more open-minded and less prejudiced. This documentary focuses on Generation Z in order to demonstrate the continuity of China-Africa cooperation: there are people in every generation who build cultural bridges. The baton has been passed onto the generation born after the 1990s and will continue to be passed onto young people born after 2000 or 2010. I believe the young generation is our future, and their thoughts and ideas will shape the future of China-Africa relations. I would love to document their stories.
YONG ZHANG’S FILMS
Africans in Yiwu我从非洲来 (2017) https://www.iqiyi.com/a_19rrhcmp05.html?vfm=swwwds56
It is also available on YouTube.
Episode 1: https://youtu.be/YfU_M_x8_Fc
Episode 2: https://youtu.be/w1SVQSF0PCo
Episode 3: https://youtu.be/IWwShq_8s58
Episode 4: https://youtu.be/UUjKNIWoZew
Episode 5: https://youtu.be/2HTKL4AYK7w
Episode 6: https://youtu.be/usm4cWJWBZE
TAZARA: A Journey without an End 重走坦赞铁路 (2018)
Bobby’s Factory (aka China-Africa Factory)波比的工厂 (2021)
SOAS Library collection MDVD24 /9798 MDVD24 /9799
Chinese Meet Africa 我到非洲去 (2022)
陆: 您不仅是一位导演而且是一位学者。在您2018年写的《中国银幕上的非洲：问题与反思》一文中，您提到了四部以非洲为背景的中国国产故事片，包括我们耳熟能详的《战狼2》，并有一个很有意思的观察：您指出这些电影在某种程度上加强了好莱坞电影所塑造的有关非洲的刻板印象。众所周知，在过去二十年间中非建立了广泛的联系，但中国电影人在“讲非洲故事” 这一点上更多追随了好莱坞电影叙事模式而不是从自己对非洲直接观察出发。您能否跟我们解释一下中国电影人为什么有这种处境？
张: 这里面有好几个因素。一是好莱坞非洲题材的深刻影响，它不仅深刻影响了中国普通观众对非洲的印象，更直接影响了中国的创作者，他们刚开始进入这个领域拍摄非洲题材电影时不自觉地模仿了好莱坞非洲大片，熟悉好莱坞的观众不难发现，《战狼2》是《黑鹰坠落》（Black Hawk Down，2001）、《太阳之泪》（Tears of the Sun，2003）、《卢旺达饭店》（Hotel Rwanda，2004）、《血钻》（Blood Diamond，2008）等等好莱坞非洲题材的集大成者，它在叙事上集结了好莱坞多年走进非洲的所有经验：暴力、种族冲突、饥饿、贫困、疾病，还有几乎是硬缝入进去的几个动物和大草原风光镜头。毫不夸张地说，西方观众有关非洲的种种想象在这里无所不有。由于聘用了好莱坞和香港的动作和特效团队，以及重金购置了相关军用道具，影片有关血肉横飞和炮火硝烟的种种展程，相比好莱坞影片有过之而无不及，影片化身为一部中国版的好莱坞非洲大片，使观众仿佛忘了自己看的究竟是中国电影还是好莱坞电影。
张: 《我从非洲来》讲述非洲人在中国的经商、公益、婚姻、教育、美食、艺术活动，呈现非洲人在中国闯荡商海、勤劳创业、积极正面的故事，以破除对非洲人的刻板印象。在具体叙事风格上, 定位为“讲述非洲人自己的故事”、“发出非洲人的声音”。
陆: 对中国的纪录片创作者，西方也还是作为第三方存在着的。这一点在您的《重走坦赞铁路》体现的最为明显，因为这部片子就是对BBC记者Sean Langan所拍的纪录片《非洲铁路》的直接回应。西方导演对非洲的刻画自然受制于他们自身对非洲的了解以及他们所在社会主导意识形态的影响，但中国政府自二十世纪中期开始宣传的‘中非友谊’ 也多少会在中国导演身上留下印记。近年来中国在非洲大力投资，尽管中国政府将现在的中非合作总结为双赢的“南南合作“，这一话语在西方世界并没有太大的说服力。尤其是西方的大众传媒经常指责中国为非洲的‘新殖民者’。 做为一个纪录片创作者，您是如何置身其中的呢？
张: 新作的话，我们在做系列片《90后的中非情缘》，每集会挑选一个中国 90 后与一个非洲 90 后作为主要人物。在我十次左右去非洲的经历中，最让我震撼的是90后，他们在中非领域表现出来的成熟是国人所未理解的, 更开放、包容，接触的信息也多，没有老一代的歧视非洲的思想。这部纪录片聚焦于这一特定的群体，去体现中非合作交流的一种延续性：每一代都有致力于搭建中非合作之桥的人，而现在这个合作的接力棒已经递交到了90后的受众，未来还会有00后，10后……我觉得青年是未来，他们的想法会影响中非关系的未来，我希望记录下他们的中非故事。