The Central African Republic (CAR) has 76% of its population living below the international poverty line. Its GDP is less than $500 USD per person. In Canada the GDP per person is $52,000 USD. The CAR is more or less in a civil war which has yet to reach its capital of Bangui. Violence, desperate poverty and then there are the Chinese “managers” from the People’s Republic of China who are managing construction projects in Bangui and for that matter elsewhere in Africa.
Unfortunately the documentary fails to dig deeper and explain is there more than Chinese management involved such as if there is Chinese ownership and hence Chinese imperialism? A fierce capitalist country taking over Africa?
These construction projects require sand and pebbles used in the production of cement and impoverished men, many from the bush country, are involved in “mining” sand and pebbles from the river coursing through Bangui. They dive for sand and pebbles which are then loaded onto primitive canoes and taken to shore. There are divers, brokers, wholesalers and many levels of people involved selling to the Chinese overseers. The local government of Bangui attempts to shut down the sand and pebble business for goodness knows what reason but most likely to encourage bribery of the police and army. Send unemployed men back into the bush and some of these men say they will be fighting and killing each other.
Luan is a Chinese manager of several Bangui construction projects. Like the workers on his projects he comes from a dirt poor background in China and his overseas assignments earn him more than what he could earn in China so he attempts to build a nest egg for his retirement. He has colleagues arriving to assist and they have their own growing community in Bangui. There is even a Chinese owned grocery and hardgoods store. There is an uneasy peace between the Chinese and the locals. Both are desperate for money. Domestically Luan and his workers and the sand divers are miserable with broken families all linked to a desperate attempt to better themselves economically.
Working conditions throughout for the locals are horrific. On construction sites the locals are wearing flip flops and have no hard hats. Scandalous by North American standards but life is cheap in the CAR.
One project involves building a branch of a bank that the President of the CAR is going to appear at the opening for a press opportunity. The CAR government is more interested in promoting itself than legislating any sort of worker protection or regulation in the construction and the sand and pebble business. What are a few dead workers in the face of a presidential photo op! African politics.
While viewers will witness the social and business aspect of the construction projects there is the social aspect of local life and that of the Chinese overseers and the struggle for survival and the stress placed on familial relationships. The locals are on the edge of survival and the Chinese overseers are perhaps better off but as for happiness both are suffering.
There is dysfunctionality in personal relationships, the economy, politics, poverty and working conditions causing pain and suffering but it somehow works perhaps not humanely or efficiently but it works. The Chinese are not trusting of the work ethics and skills of the locals. The locals do not trust the Chinese thinking they are no better than the white man that discombobulated their country but they co-operate. Who is to blame for this mess? That’s up to you to determine. The Chinese overseers are not blameless but with the assistance of politicians and “local” middlemen the exploitation works quite efficiently creating few winners, a few dreamers and many losers both amongst the locals and the Chinese. The Chinese and CAR Bangui community are not opposing communities. The Chinese may be the shark but the layers of Bangui middlemen are the remora. A symbiotic relationship.
Life is very bitter for all but the undercurrent of the film is that bitterness (and suffering) for some is the ticket for a sweeter tasting life. Tolstoy in the Central African Republic? As in Brazil with the dislocation of the indigenous population into miserable shanty towns the Christians are on the scene “saving souls”.
At points the documentary lapses into a soap opera in its focus on the personal lives of Bangui workers/sand and pebble divers.
You can see the trailer here https://vimeo.com/798887255
The Canadian premiere of the documentary is on 3/5 May. Streaming available in Canada. The directors of the documentary are Pascale Appora-Gnekindy and Ningyi Sun.
RKS 2023 Film Rating 81/100.