Sino-african people-to-people exchanges spread to big and small screens
on the screen, an enthusiastic young African launches into a Chinese song in a municipal park, under the admiring glances of a few fellow karaoke fans. “Welcome to Beijing, where everyone has an extraordinary dream, where we dare to try to make miracles...,” he sings.
The performance was filmed for the big screen as part of the documentary Africans in Yiwu. The singer is Serge Hervea, a Cameroonian student at the College of Culture and International Education of Zhejiang Normal University, located in east China’s Zhejiang Province.
“I really like singing and listening to music. But singing Chinese songs is not just a hobby for me, it’s also a way to show that I live well in China,” he said to the camera.
Shot over a two-year period, Africans in Yiwu is the work of Chinese and African directors: Zhang Yong, Director of the African Television and Film Research Center (ATFRC) and Hodan Osman Abdi, Deputy Director of ATFRC coming from Somali.
The documentary consists of six episodes featuring 19 Africans living in China, including Hervea. They talk about the ups and downs of their life in China, and more generally about multiculturalism through topics such as education, marriage, business, public welfare, food and art.
Abdi set foot in China for the first time in 2005. Now 13 years later, she holds a PH.D. in communications from Zhejiang University and is a silver-award winner of the
third edition of the Chinese Bridge Chinese Language Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students, in addition to being a professor at the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University and a presidential advisor to the Somali Government.
“My dream is to become a cultural messenger to help Chinese better understand Africa and Africans better understand China,” said Abdi.
The documentary serves precisely this purpose. Abdi and her team followed the 19 protagonists for two years to present their lives in the most realistic way possible. “Through these stories, we hope to inspire public reflection, not just give personal opinions,” explained Abdi, who hopes the film will allow the Chinese public to gain a more objective view of Africans.
The documentary was screened at the 2017 Zanzibar International Film Festival, and as an opening film at the 2017 Lusaka International Film Festival. It also won the award for best online documentary film in China in 2017.
Convinced of the usefulness of cinema in exploring and showcasing this topic, Zhang did not wait long to get back behind the camera. “We told the life stories of Africans in China in Africans in Yiwu. This time, we wanted to tell the story of Chinese living in Africa,” he told Chinafrica.
Same approach, but different location: his second documentary, TAZARA: A Journey Without an End, aims to observe the impact of the Tanzania-zambia Railway, a flagship project of Sino-african cooperation. For 38 days, the film crew - made up of filmmakers and researchers from Africa, China and Europe - traveled along the iconic railway.
Launched on December 30, 2017 at the Dar es Salaam Train Station, the starting point of the Tanzania-zambia Railway, the documentary presents testimonies of more than 40 people who took part in the construction of the railway.
“The construction of the Tanzania-zambia Railway was the first time so many Chinese set foot in Africa. Overall, more than 50,000 Chinese engineers and technicians were dispatched to the continent at the time,” said Zhang.
Open to traffic in July 1976 after six years of work, the railway starts in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam and crosses all of south Tanzania up to Kapiri Mposhi, a distance of 1,860 km.
“The documentary TAZARA: A Journey Without An End aims to reflect how the railway contributed to local development, as well as the problems that one finds there in an objective way. We hope to put forward solutions rather than partial criticisms,” Zhang told Chinafrica. The documentary, which was coproduced by The Travel Channel, also seeks to highlight the region’s beautiful landscapes, with an aim of promoting tourism development along the railway. The first three episodes will be aired for the first time on television in early September, to coincide with the opening of the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
Big project, small screen
At the FOCAC Johannesburg Summit in December, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to launch 10 major China-africa cooperation plans for the following three years.
One of these projects deals with people-to-people exchanges, stating that China would build five cultural centers for Africa, facilitate access to satellite TV in 10,000 African villages and provide 30,000 scholarships to African students wishing to study in China. In addition, China made a commitment to sponsoring visits by 200 African scholars and study trips by 500 young Africans to China every year, as well as training 1,000 media workers annually. In order to improve connectivity and tourism cooperation, the project also plans to help open more direct flights between China and Africa. These promises were not empty words. Chinese digital TV broadcasting company Startimes was quick to set in motion the project to help 10,000 African villages access to satellite TV. After more than two years of preparation, the project was launched in a number of African countries in 2018 and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“It’s a project that benefits African rural residents. It will not only enrich their cultural life, but also deepens China-africa cultural exchanges,” said Startimes President Pang Xinxing.
On May 13, the project was launched in Mozambique, providing satellite television to more than 500 villages. A month later, on June 7, the project expanded to Kenya, where more than 16,000 households in 800 villages benefited from free satellite television services.
According to Joe Mucheru, Kenyan Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, the implementation of the project actually helped Kenyans, especially those in rural areas, “gain a window to the outside world.”
Like Abdi, Zhang and Startimes, thousands of Africans and Chinese contribute to Sino-african exchanges. Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, more than 300 activities and cooperation projects have been implemented in the field of people-to-people exchanges.
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Zhang Yong, Director of TAZARA: A Journey Without an End, with some of the Massai people he interviewed for his documentary
Zhang Yong films landscape along the Tanzaniazambia Railway