Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying) – not all smooth sailing in this episode about bars and bulimia

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying)” (September 2020)

Of the four apparatus used in women’s artistic gymnastics, the uneven bars (also known as asymmetric bars) apparatus is the most spectacular but also perhaps the most punishing with regard to its demands on gymnasts’ hands, body types and limitations, and the consequences that arise and which can have devastating effects on the athletes’ psyches and overall health. Originating from the men’s parallel bars with the aim of demonstrating balance, poise and balletic or static moves, the apparatus has undergone tremendous and radical changes: starting in the 1960s, the emphasis quickly shifted from routines of linked static poses to exercises of near-continuous fluid moves based on kips, beats, wraps and release moves from one bar to the other. From the late 1960s on, uneven bars started being manufactured separately from the parallel bars and their design was changed with the addition of tension cables that allowed the bars to be adjusted for width, allowing them to be moved farther apart. Such a change enabled experimentation with new skills, especially release skills, and elements borrowed from the men’s high bar apparatus that stress continuous movement approaching flight (and which put pressure on gymnasts to maintain a particular body / weight ratio to remain light). Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut pioneered the Korbut flip, the first upper bar somersault release skill at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci followed suit at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with her famous forward somersault release from top bar to top bar and her dismount.

As in other episodes of this series, interviews with various US-based gymnasts and ex-gymnasts drive the episode’s themes which encompass not only the uneven bars’ evolution and the demands it makes on gymnasts’ bodies but also the issue of eating disorders in gymnasts and how the gymnastics culture has encouraged, at times even demanded unhealthy eating, with disastrous effects for individual gymnasts. Former gymnast Vanessa Atler’s personal story in battling her bulimia and personal hoodoo with the uneven bars, and the unsympathetic treatment she received from gymnastics coaches (not necessarily her own) and officials, is shocking; likewise Cathy Rigby, a former gymnast herself before becoming an actor, recounts her experiences with eating disorders. Kathy Johnson correctly identifies the toxic culture surrounding gymnastics as a leading if not the main contributor to gymnasts’ eating disorders though she could have gone further (she probably did but the harsher criticism might have been edited) in condemning international and national gymnastics organisations and their officials for doing very little about the issue and closing their eyes to individual girls’ suffering.

Curiously the tragic story of Christy Henrich, who died from anorexia nervosa at the age of 22 years in 1994, is not mentioned. One result of the publicity around her death was that Johnson, Rigby and others came out publicly about their struggles, TV stations in the US and outside stopped commenting on gymnasts’ weight and educational programs on proper eating and nutrition for gymnasts were launched. The episode also does not mention these changes which I consider quite a serious oversight.

The rest of the episode focuses on current US gymnasts Olivia Greaves and Riley McCusker on their personal journeys in the sport and their particular relationships with the uneven bars. Other famous athletes like Comaneci, her husband Bart Conner, Laurie Hernandez and Olga Korbut add their own insights and perspectives on uneven bars and the issue of eating disorders. As in the other episodes I have seen, there’s a lot to take in (the use of archival film footage to illustrate interviews helps) and directors Kargman and Walker do a good job of segueing smoothly from one topic to the next … almost like a bars routine!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor) – a riveting introduction to a world of intriguing personalities and human stories

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor)” (September 2020)

As the first in a six-part documentary series on women’s artistic gymnastics, you’d think this episode would present an overview of the current state of the sport, its history and its most outstanding champions and personalities. Maybe the episode would have time to dig deeper into the sport, explore how the different apparatus used first developed (and what the original reasons for their development were) and their evolution into something far beyond what their creators had intended. The episode would introduce the major international and national bodies governing the sport and explain a bit about what the major competitions are, what they consist of and what gymnasts are required to do in their routines. The Code of Points used to judge and score routines would be explained somewhat so that viewers can see how controversial it has been in pushing women’s gymnastics in a particular direction that not everyone in the sport (and outside) agrees with.

Instead what we get is a series of interviews with well-known US and international gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Morgan Hurd, Olga Korbut, Katelyn Ohashi, Carly Patterson, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez talking about why and how they fell in love with the sport, their experiences in competition including international competition, and the pressures that come with winning and becoming famous. Ohashi especially details her precocity as a talented young gymnast with the result that she burned out young and came to resent the sport and the pressure that others’ expectations and her own desire to please people put on her. Eventually back pain and a potentially serious spinal problem forced her to give up elite gymnastics – while also affording her the opportunity to rest and gain a new perspective on the sport that allowed her to return to it on her own terms. Comaneci, Hurd, Raisman and Hernandez speak of their respective introductions into the sport, what motivated them to push themselves to elite level, and the challenges, disappointments and (in Raisman’s case) the heartache they had to battle through.

While the episode supposedly focuses on the floor exercise, its demands as well as the opportunity for gymnasts to express their personalities and individual style in dance and acrobatics – there’s even a small part in the documentary about how the equipment for the floor changed over the years and the effect the changes (such as the addition of extra foam layers and the use of springs) had on increasing the acrobatic and technical aspects of the floor exercise – it’s even more about what gymnasts need to excel as all-round gymnasts on all four major apparatus and the prestige that is attached to being the all-round champion.

The coaches of some of these gymnasts and former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with Comaneci’s coach Bela Karolyi) are interviewed as well if only briefly. Disappointingly perhaps the gymnasts’ parents are not interviewed – Aly Raisman’s mother Lynn, who declares after seeing Carly Patterson winning the all-round competition at the 2004 Olympic Games: “I’m so glad I’m never gonna have to experience that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch your kid compete at the Olympics” (and then later watches her daughter compete in the 2016 Olympic Games!) provides the episode’s funniest moments – and an opportunity to see how gymnasts’ families are affected by their daughters’ sport, and might feel pride or resentment in their daughters’ achievements, is lost.

By using interviews with gymnasts to explain what their sport is about and what it means to them, this episode ends up exploring women’s artistic gymnastics in much more depth than it would have done using a narrator churning through its history and reeling off a list of its champions and their achievements. It draws in viewers and immerses them in the finer, deeper points of the sport straight away. You almost live and breathe gymnastics the way these gymnasts do and have done. When the episode is over and done with, you just can’t wait to see the next five parts in the series.

Well done to Kargman and Walker for such a breath-taking introduction to a sport featuring very human individuals with intriguing histories and motivations, and a passion for what they do!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam) – an insight into the psychology and history of gymnastics

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam)” (September 2020)

In spite of the popularity of gymnastics and women’s gymnastics in particular with the general public (at least in Australia), there haven’t been very many documentaries made about the sport or the individuals involved so when a documentary series like “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” comes by, my interest is piqued straight away. Even though this episode’s focus is on the balance beam – one of the four apparatuses used in the women’s sport – and the demands it makes on gymnasts and their coaches (and the consequences of those demands that arise), it ends up being as much about the individual stories of the gymnasts themselves as they relate to the balance beam itself.

The major individual stories featured in the episode are those of Sunisa Lee, a current member of the United States national team, and former US team member Kathy Johnson who competed for her country at the World Championships in 1978 and 1983, and the Olympic Games in 1984. Lee and Johnson talk about how they became attracted to the sport as young girls and Lee in particular tells of how she was encouraged by her father John to excel and compete in the sport. Old photographs and videos of Lee and Johnson as children and teenagers show their dedication and the quality of their work. The episode also portrays the difficulties and obstacles both Lee and Johnson had to overcome: Johnson’s career was affected by geopolitical events of the early 1980s that led to the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the USSR and various other Communist nations boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; and Lee’s father suffered a fall that paralysed him from the waist down in 2019 just before the US national championships. Both Lee and Johnson are visibly emotional as they bravely recount the turmoil they must have experienced and how they overcame their fear and upset, and achieved their childhood dreams of being the best in their sport.

Interviews with Lee, Johnson and other gymnasts in the US, including former world and Olympic champions like Svetlana Boginskaya, Nadia Comaneci, Phoebe Mills, Dominique Moceanu, Betty Okino and Jordyn Wieber not only demonstrate what mental qualities gymnasts need to succeed on the balance beam in spite of the often ridiculous pressures their coaches, the judges, the administration of the sport itself, the media and the public exert on them but also the psychological abuse they have had to endure from coaches like Bela and Marta Karolyi. Archival film footage illustrate how the Karolyis manipulated their pupils into intense competition against one another and their own psyches, to the point where the girls would train and compete even with major injuries and internal fractures, in what seems like an insane goal to turn them into super-athletes. Significantly, former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with the Karolyis in Romania and then in the United States) refers to Bela Karolyi’s former training in sport as a hammer thrower.

Although the episode is 37 minutes, it goes very quickly: it’s full of interesting information about the balance beam, a bit of its history and how the equipment has evolved over the past 50 years, what is required of gymnasts competing on the apparatus and how gymnasts and their coaches mentally as well as physically approach and deal with it. Along the way viewers learn something of how the balance beam and its demands help mould a gymnast’s character and either strengthen or weaken her relationship with her coach / coaches, her parents and other significant people in her life. We get some insight into the psychology and strength of character the balance beam demands of gymnasts if they are to succeed on the beam and away from it.

This episode is a fine example of how sports documentaries should be made: they should be as much about the individuals (athletes, coaches, officials and those who support them – or maybe oppose them – and other significant people involved), the experiences and stories they bring, and perhaps also teach a lesson that can be carried over into other areas of endeavour, not just in gymnastics or even other sports.

Since the documentary was made, Sunisa Lee has become the all-round Olympic champion at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A dream has been fulfilled – but at the same time, Lee and her family face new challenges, expectations and pressures.

Can the Chinese Communist Party Rule for Another 100 Years? – political scientist thinks it can

“Can the Chinese Communist Party Rule for Another 100 Years?” (Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong, 29 June 2021)

On the eve of the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, the Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong (FCC HK), hosted a conversation and discussion with political scientist / venture capitalist Eric Xun Li. FCC President Keith Richburg was moderator in this discussion. Much of this discussion was a Q&A session between Richburg and Li.

For the first several minutes Li provided a fascinating history of the CPC’s development since 1949, with the Party’s reinvention, responsiveness and changing its policy platforms, even its objectives and goals, with the aim of improving the lives of Chinese citizens, being constant themes of his talk. For a number of decades the CPC’s focus on economic development and economic gains for Chinese citizenry, often at breakneck speed, was almost all-consuming but it also led to social and economic inequalities and serious environmental consequences. People of Li’s generation looked outwards and admired Western economic and social achievements, often to the extent that people wished and even advocated for political change to a Western-style liberal democratic system with privatisation of state corporations and greater economic efficiencies.

In recent years, especially since 2001, people in China have come to see how dysfunctional and illiberal, socially, politically and economically, the West has become today, and this has led to revulsion among the Chinese people, especially among the young people, towards the West and its ideologies. Respect and support for socialism and for the CPC have risen amongst the young as a result. The result is that patriotism among Chinese youth is high, respect for President Xi Jinping is also high, and Li’s view is that the CPC’s future is bright for a considerable length of time.

Unfortunately the bulk of the discussion consisted of FCC HK Chairman and moderator Keith Richburg continuously baiting Li on various aspects of the organisation and leadership of the CPC. The tone of Richburg’s questioning and the directions in which it drifts betray Richburg’s ignorance about Chinese politics, his lazy reliance on assumptions and stereotypes about the CPC and the Chinese leadership, and his beliefs that Western and in particular US political structures, procedures and ideologies represent the ideal model towards which all other nations should progress. Of course in this paradigm, Chinese politics will always be found wanting. Li cleverly responds to the deliberate misinformation and baiting by pointing out that the CPC has always engaged in self-criticism and currently is moving towards a more centralised form of leadership and decision-making in order to tackle the major problems of corruption among public servants, poverty mitigation and environmental degradation and social inequalities created by past economic development policies. In particular, Li points out that Chinese political organisation and structures emphasise performance and outcomes in contrast to Western political organisation, structures and institutions which are overly legalistic and which emphasise procedure and ideology over actual performance, allowing incompetent or even corrupt politicians to rise to positions where the decisions and policies they make can have profound influence on economies, cultures and societies.

One audience question Li had to answer also betrays an assumption that China does not adhere by rules and by implication is not an efficiently run society. Li points out that many thousands of corrupt officials are at present in jail. He also answers a question about Xi Jinping’s continuing stay as President of the People’s Republic of China by stating that the Chinese public approves of his extended tenure, which is supported by the achievements made during his Presidency, and that this extension was approved based on the situation facing China at the time: the issues of widespread corruption, economic restructuring, tackling environmental problems and uplifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty to a modestly prosperous standard of living; and China’s external relations with nations often hostile to it due in large part to China’s successful record in improving its people’s standard of living. 

The discussion would have been much shorter and less excruciating (for me as a viewer and listener) if Richburg and others questioning Li had taken the time before the discussion to learn something about how the CPC is structured, how it makes decisions, how it responds to individual needs and criticisms, and what the party has done to reform its organisation, rid its structures of corruption and become transparent and open about its policies and programs. How the Party recruits new members and trains them, weeds out people with self-serving agendas and promotes only those members with intelligence, ability and leadership qualities would also have benefited the conversation. With some background knowledge, Richburg could have asked more informed questions of Li and Li would not have been defensive in parts of the discussion. Much time was also wasted arguing over China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020 and how prompt (or not) it was in comparison to the West’s shambolic responses in the early days of the pandemic.

At least Li did well to stand up to the baited and often hostile questioning and the assumptions behind them by being knowledgeable not just about China’s politics but also about the failures of the West in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of US and other Western governments. 

Becoming Bond: an affable light comedy biography of one-time James Bond actor

Josh Greenbaum, “Becoming Bond” (2017)

Part-fictional comedy re-enactment, part-biography, this is a very affable review of Australian actor George Lazenby’s early life up to and including the period when he played James Bond in the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, one of the most beloved and esteemed films in the entire James Bond series of spy movies. It takes the structure of an extended interview with Lazenby himself in which he talks about his childhood, his relationships with girlfriends from early in his adolescence onwards, and his early career as a car salesman, paralleled by re-enactments of significant moments of his life when opportunities out of the blue fall into his lap and he seizes them because they seem like fun and promise adventure. The film moves leisurely – perhaps a bit too leisurely, because the main reason I imagine people would watch this film is to find out how a former car salesman manages to land the movie role of the century with no acting experience or qualifications, and what qualities he must have had to land such a role – with an air of bemused bedazzlement which one imagines Lazenby carried with him during those heady days in the 1960s when he moved to London in pursuit of a girlfriend, took up modelling and through sheer accident met a movie agent who put him in contact with the producer and director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Split into thirteen chapters, each one with a title that spoofs a James Bond film, the film rolls its way through Lazenby’s various escapades, all illustrated with Lazenby’s droll reminiscences which may be true or not. While the film doesn’t drill deep down into Lazenby’s psychology and motivations for doing the things he does, the impression that for Lazenby, life is a big adventure that you roll with is strong. Of course the big moment when Lazenby explains why he walked away from the Bond films after completing “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” eventually comes and Lazenby’s reason, which may be self-justification on his part, seems quite reasonable given the way his early life has unfolded so far: he’s a man who’ll try anything once but never more than once, a man who can’t and won’t be tied down to meeting others’ expectations. After a fitful acting career, Lazenby returns to Australia, becomes involved in real estate investment and goes through two marriages (the second of which was to famous US tennis player Pam Shriver) with two sets of children.

The hokey re-enactment of Lazenby’s early years in Australia and London, in which Australia in the 1940s-50s appears as romanticised kitsch and people in London drive cars with the steering wheel mounted on the left-hand side of the vehicle, is marred by awkward and inconsistent acting from Josh Lawson playing Lazenby. Jane Seymour as the movie agent is the stand-out of the cast in the re-enactment scenes.

The film might have worked better if the narrative were more streamlined and less meandering, at the cost perhaps of one of its themes: that of its protagonist’s life as a Great Australian Yarn of tall stories, opportunities that fall out of the sky into his lap and how, through all the adventures he has, he manages to remain a simple and basically well-meaning character with simple, down-to-earth values. Lazenby may not be particularly profound, his early ignorance can be jaw-dropping and his treatment of his girlfriends leaves much to be desired. Yet he appears to have intuited when people are trying to exploit him and own him, and to walk away from what could have been his ruin despite the fame and wealth that beckoned. Of course the reality was different: his agent convinced him that the Bond films had run their course and were becoming outdated.

The film works as light entertainment rather than as a straight biography or documentary and viewers must not expect to take it seriously.

The Chinese Automaker Changing the Market in Africa: auto factory and harbour construction in the spotlight

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 4: Moving Africa)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

Fourth instalment in a series of documentaries investigating examples of Chinese industrial investment in Africa, this episode follows workers and managers in an automobile plant operated by Beijing Automotive Works Co. Ltd (BAW) in South Africa, and the construction of necessary harbour and port infrastructure in Lobito, Angola, by the China Harbour Engineering Company Group (CHEC), with an emphasis on how Chinese and African interactions benefit and enrich both parties and local African communities.

In the South African part of the episode, South African and Chinese workers and managers talk about their experiences of working with one another, learning Chinese work values and culture, and adapting to local South African product and service needs and expectations. The camera follows these individuals around the factory floor and the episode features close-up camera work of people checking finished parts, tightening screws on components and consulting with one another on various projects. In the Angolan part of the episode, we see not only people and heavy machines at work building the port and storage facilities but also CHEC’s involvement in an environmental conservation project, in training and educating workers in civil engineering, and in sponsoring an orphanage.

As always in this series, the pace is easy-going for a general audience to follow and pick up information. Camera work is consistent as well and features often quite beautiful panoramas of town and city life though sometimes the poverty shown can be stark and confronting for Western viewers. Again, the music and ambient background soundtrack can be intrusive and the voice-over narration has to fight for dominance.

The examples of Chinese investment offered in this episode seem unusual: was there no other place in Africa where Chinese auto companies are also operating, even if in South Africa also? The section on CHEC’s investment in Lobito’s harbour and port infrastructure could have been expanded into an episode in its own right.

I’ve probably seen enough of Lobito in this series that I perhaps should consider putting the town on my bucket list of places to visit before I die, to see how CHEC’s construction work and the work of other Chinese companies covered in the series are progressing.

Chinese Doctors Changing Africa’s Healthcare: the challenges of working in impoverished and alien environments

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 4: Doctors for Africa)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

A very good episode in the “China / Africa Big Business” series from the South African company Sabido Productions, this looks at two teams of doctors working in Zanzibar and a city in Angola. The first and third parts of the documentary follow the team working in a hospital in Stone Town on Zanzibar Island, how they deal with the challenges of working in impoverished conditions, communicating with patients and student doctors who speak a different language from theirs, and coping with homesickness, isolation and being separated from their families. The middle part of the documentary follows the team in Angola: there, the doctors also have to confront the reality of working in a country devastated by decades of civil war, chaos and destroyed infrastructures, as well as communicating with and helping patients and local staff in the hospital they have been assigned to. These doctors also have to adjust quickly to the difficult local conditions in which they have to work.

Interviews with individual Chinese doctors and specialists help viewers understand and appreciate the trials of being a doctor working in a busy and often overcrowded and under-resourced hospital in a poor country. Voice-over narration fills in the context behind the challenges the Chinese doctors have to face. At the same time, the interviewees emphasise what motivates them to keep going under difficult conditions: in particular, they talk about how the patients are grateful for their help. African interviewees stress the professionalism of the doctors they consult.

As with previous episodes of this series I have seen, the cinematography (which often emphasises close-ups of faces and picturesque scenes, and tracks the doctors going about their tasks) is excellent. The only technical problem with this episode is that often the narration is forced to compete with ambient background noises for listeners’ attention, and parts of the documentary have to be replayed to pick up information that is missed as a result. Apart from this issue, I’d recommend this episode to viewers interested in learning how China uses its recently acquired wealth and technical expertise to assist other nations, especially poor nations, in improving people’s lives.

The Chinese Companies Behind Water Supply in Africa: how Chinese companies transform lives and communities in Angola and Zanzibar

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 6: Precious Water)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

This South African documentary follows two Chinese corporations on opposite sides of southern Africa in their efforts to supply impoverished rural and urban communities with running water. The first half of the documentary features China Railway Jianchang Engineering Limited (GRJE) building water pipelines and water and sanitation infrastructures to bring running water to communities on Zanzibar Island in Tanzania. The second half of the documentary focuses on the work of Guangxi Hydroelectric Commission Bureau (GHCB) and in particular the work of one of the company’s managers in bringing water infrastructure and a power station to Luanda and Lobito respectively, two major cities in Angola. (Luanda is also the capital of Angola.) In both halves of the documentary, the Chinese companies not only work on constructing pipelines to bring water into communities and take stormwater and sewage out, and provide work and training for local people, but also become involved in social projects the communities need. The GHCB manager interviewed in the documentary has also invested time, money and effort in establishing a farm to provide food and work for people in the Lobito area. GRJE is also helping to build a hotel on Zanzibar and its engineers have consciously incorporated traditional Zanzibari designs and craftwork in the hotel’s construction.

Interviews with Chinese managers and local people in Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito focus not only on the transformative effect the water infrastructure projects are having on the lives of the people but also on the respect the Chinese and their African partners have for each other. The Chinese respect the hard work and diligence of the African people and the Africans find the Chinese to be reliable and helpful in going beyond the original aims and scope of the water supply and sanitation projects. Voice-over narration provides historical and economic context for the projects; in particular, viewers are made aware of the destructive effects of the civil war that lasted over 25 years in Angola on people’s lives and the conditions they live in. Unfortunately the voice-over narration has to fight the music soundtrack to be heard clearly.

The cinematography is very good with many, sometimes confronting close-ups and panoramic, even postcard-picture views of Zanzibar, Luanda and Lobito. African children figure very prominently in the film, giving it a bright and even sometimes bubbly and optimistic feel.

How Chinese Money is Changing Housing in Africa: a survey of how Chinese companies are transforming African people’s lives and societies through housing projects

“China / Africa Big Business (Episode 2: Building Homes)” (ENDEVR, 2013)

Part of a South African-made series of six episodes on Chinese business investment in Africa, this very interesting and visually appealing documentary looks at how two major Chinese construction companies have gone about building major housing projects in Angola and Tanzania, and furthermore how these two companies have become further involved in improving the lives of the people who have moved into the houses and of the workers employed in building the houses. The documentary uses both voice-over narration and interviews with managers and employees of the construction companies, and the people living in the housing projects to illustrate what the construction companies have done for them and the transformations that have followed.

The documentary is split into three parts for easy viewing. The first part follows the Shanghai Construction Group (SCG) in its construction of mass housing across eight provinces of Tanzania for the Tanzanian Peoples’ Defence Force. A military veteran and his family are given a new house and they marvel at the amenities and the space that they did not have in their previous shabby dwelling. The second part of the documentary surveys a new satellite city, Kilamba City, built on the outskirts of Luanda, the capital of Angola, built by CITIC according to Chinese construction codes and standards. Streets follow north-south and east-west orientations, and buildings are oriented in ways so that harsh sun can be minimised where possible and good ventilation is maximised. CITIC provides an additional service – an after-sale service if you like – in repairing utilities in individual dwellings even where the fault may have been the residents’ fault.

The third part of the documentary covers CITIC’s involvement in helping to improve agriculture, in particular food production and agricultural research, in Angola. This part of the documentary also follows CITIC’s construction of a vocational school to train young people in civil construction, mechanics and electrical work. The episode concludes with CITIC’s sponsoring of a table tennis club for children which extends to bringing out coaches from China to teach the children how to play.

Unfortunately the background music is very loud and drowns out parts of the commentary so much information can be lost and viewers need to repeat the documentary a few times to catch interesting snippets. Apart from this technical fault, filming is very well done and includes panoramic shots of the housing projects and Kilamba City itself to illustrate the huge scale of this particular project and the urban landscaping that accompanies it. A brief bit of historical context is included: after independence in 1975, Angola experienced a long period of civil war and foreign interference which ended in 2002. Much reconstruction needs to be done, employment must be found for people, services need to be provided and it seems that Chinese firms such as SCG and CITIC are not only filling the gaps of assisting in reconstruction, building new infrastructure and providing jobs and vocational training for people, but also addressing people’s needs for schools and providing children with recreation and sport, thus also extending their help and influence into local cultures. Emphasis is on how China and African nations have supported one another in the past and how the Chinese remember and honour the support African peoples have given them – by providing practical help.

The documentary portrays a very positive picture of how Chinese companies are helping Africans lift themselves out of poverty by giving them work and training as well as the housing and amenities they desperately need. Western nations and companies would do well to observe what the Chinese are doing and emulate the best aspects of the Chinese example. Of course one notes that the documentary says very little about what SCG and CITIC might or might not be doing that could be negative, and which the Angolans and Tanzanians could be critical of – for one thing, we do not know who is financing the housing projects or how they or any loans taken out on them will have to be paid for – and one could argue that the film fails to look at the long-term issues likely to arise from the mass housing projects. By focusing on the present, the film could be attacked as pro-Chinese propaganda. One can argue though that private Western developers would not do any better – and would do far worse – in failing to consider even short-term consequences of any construction projects they might undertake in impoverished nations: one only has to see what such companies do in their own nations, and the problems relating to urban design and infrastructures, and failure to connect with local communities that private housing projects often engender.