When China met Africa

Nick Francis & Marc J. Francis

When we first arrived in Zambia in 2007, in the wake of the Zambian Presidential elections, the Zambian opposition leader had just campaigned on an anti-Chinese platform to try and win the Presidency. He failed but his campaign reverberated around the world and it was held up as an example of anti-Chinese sentiment growing in the region.

Around the same time, international news organisations were focusing on a Chinese run mine that had claimed the lives of nearly 50 Zambian workers in an explosion. As a result there was a tense atmosphere, and our biggest challenge was gaining access to film inside the Chinese community.

Our fixer Kenney Gondwe managed to arrange some key meetings with the Zambian government officials and the Chinese Ambassador, but it seemed that any westerner wielding a camera was viewed as persona non-grata. Fortunately Marc, having studied Chinese and lived there in the mid-1990s could speak mandarin and this helped break down some barriers with the Chinese community.

By 2008, widely reported uprisings in Tibet and increasing western criticism of the Chinese government in the run up to the Olympics in Beijing sent shockwaves through the Chinese communities living abroad and they began to close in on themselves - shying away from any dialogue with the Western media.

After two trips to China, we returned to Zambia with our Chinese-French production assistant, Solange Chatelard, who had a solid understanding of Chinese culture. What we never expected was how long it would take before we could begin filming.

There was a suspicion amongst many people we met that we were trying to frame 'China' and cast the country in the same light as the news media. The difficulty was trying to explain to both the Zambian and Chinese authorities that we wanted to make an observational film that would have no commentary. It was about observing life play out, rather than making an analytical or investigative piece.

After many more months of networking in Zambia we had met more than a hundred Chinese people living and working in Zambia including construction managers, restaurant owners, farmers, travel agents, labourers, CEOs and government officials.

Finally we found our three characters, who were open to being in the film. The stories of farm owner Mr Liu, road project manager Mr Li, and the Zambian Minister for trade Felix Mutati best reflected how the China Africa relationship was playing out on a daily basis across the continent.

Once when filming began we faced another challenge - being unable to understand what was being said during the filming. The Chinese often spoke to each other in their own dialect, as did the Zambians, and when the Chinese tried to communicate to the Zambians they often failed to communicate effectively due to their inability to speak English nor the local Zambian dialect.

For a lot of the time we had no idea what our characters were saying and our characters had little idea of what they were saying to eachother. These are not the best conditions to direct a film and it was not until several weeks later when we were back in the UK that we began to understand the story. Our team of international translators had passed through nearly a 100 hours of filming material delivering transcripts in English based on translations from over five Zambian and Chinese dialects.

During the six months of editing in London, Brighton and Paris, the story started to unfold, and two and half years since we began the research of the film the story was finally told.