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.

Apocalypse Now Now: where superstition and technology create monsters in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia

Michael Mathews, “Apocalypse Now Now” (2017)

Made as a proof-of-concept film on which a television series or a feature film will be based, “Apocalypse Now Now” posits a future dystopian South Africa where supernatural cyber-monsters roam through abandoned cities full of giant heaps of technological junk and people live huddled and frightened lives in slums dominated by fundamentalist Christianity. In this milieu travel two unlikely partners: Baxter Zevcenko (Gavion Dowd), a cynical teenager who may or may not be a serial killer and who is on the run from police for supposedly killing his girlfriend Esme, whom he is searching for; and Dr Ronin (Louw Venter), a bounty hunter of supernatural monsters. In this short film, Dr Ronin uses Baxter as bait to lure a giant lumbering aardvark beastie laden with discarded machine trash into a trap. Dr Ronin’s ruse is briefly interrupted by a crazed woman keen on avenging the death of a loved one and whose encounter with the monster results in a fair amount of tomato ketchup being splashed about.

The characters look good: Baxter resembles a chubby and smug upper-class Harry Potter figure, and he may have a touch of the sociopath about him; Dr Ronin seems a bit undeveloped and his mannerisms derived from a motley collection of characters ranging from Captain Jack Sparrow (of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) to Doc Sportello of the film “Inherent Vice”. The relationship between the two could be more combative and for the time being in this short film, the actors appear to be relying on stereotypes of upper-class, know-all schoolboy brat and doped-out hippie shaman investigator.

The environment in which the two unlikely buddies travel around in is very well realised: the giant praying mantis blends in with the post-apocalyptic / post-industrial dystopia, superstition born of local African and apocalyptic Protestant Christian traditions oppresses communities, and the weird monsters inhabiting the landscape straddle two worlds of dystopian science fiction and a fantasy fusion of two very different cultures that are hostile to each other.

I can see a television mini-series being made out of this film but I am not sure that it can sustain a television series over several seasons unless the scriptwriters are prepared to add more quirky characters and the main characters themselves are allowed to develop in ways that take them far from what they are in the short film.

An Act of Defiance: a hard-hitting, confrontational film about personal courage and the fight for justice

Jean van de Welde, “An Act of Defiance” (2017)

Quite a hard-hitting and confrontational film this historical drama on the incidents and trial that sent political activist Nelson Mandela to prison for nearly 30 years turns out to be, with a focus on the barrister who defended Mandela and his co-defendants in the trial and how his own life was turned upside-down as a result. In 1963, Mandela and his inner circle of black African and Jewish activists in the African National Congress are arrested at Lillesleaf Farm in Rivonia, in Johannesburg, on charges of conspiring to commit sabotage. Lawyer Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller) reluctantly agrees to defend Mandela and the other activists at their trial in spite of his own connections with the African National Congress through the outlawed South African Communist Party; indeed, some of the documents seized by police at Lillesleaf Farm are actually in his own handwriting. Mandela urges his co-defendants to plead not guilty to the charges of high treason, punishable by the death penalty, and appeals to them and their legal counsel to put the South African government on trial during their trial over the system of apartheid blanketing the country’s institutions that denies non-white people the same rights, privileges and freedoms as white people have.

As the trial progresses, Bram Fischer’s sympathies with the defendants are called into question, especially when the legal counsel for the prosecution reveals his link to Mandela’s inner circle, and Fischer and his family are subjected to harassment by the police. While his wife Molly and their children support Fischer and his desire to see justice done – incidentally only two of Fischer’s three children are portrayed in the film – the Rivonia trial has a huge impact on all their lives, even after cross-examination ends, the judge delivers the verdict and the sentence, and Mandela and his fellow co-defendants are forced to return to prison; over the next few years, strange incidents suggestive of continuing government and police harassment occur in the family’s lives which result in tragedy and Fischer’s own arrest, trial, sentencing and imprisonment.

The tone of the film is very sober yet matter-of-fact. Initially it is slow and little of note happens until the trial begins. Then the pace and the tension are relentless as the trial grinds away, wearing down Fischer and his legal team. Relief at the verdict when it comes, is but very short-lived as the film details the consequences of Fischer’s involvement in the Rivonia Trial on him, Molly and other members of his family. The acting is good and consistent if fairly minimal.

While highlighting the role that members of the South African Jewish community played in fighting apartheid alongside Mandela and other black Africans, the film does little to show the support non-white people might have demonstrated for Fischer and the hostility he and his family might have faced from their own Afrikaner community. Divisions among the whites in their attitudes toward the Rivonia Trial and its participants could also have been shown. Ironically, for all the emphasis the film places on how South African Jewish individuals worked with black people to fight apartheid, most black characters in the film are basically passive bystanders. Without the overall political context that was South Africa in the early 1960s, viewers outside the country who have little knowledge of its history before the 1990s will not be able to appreciate the depth of hatred and enmity against Bram Fischer for defending Mandela and the activists from the government and its institutions, the huge risks he took in doing so and the sacrifices he was forced to make later. The film highlights how the search for justice and the advancement of society demand considerable personal courage from individuals who, all too often, end up being persecuted and suffer great personal tragedy.

District 9: sharp social and political satire buried under a sketchy action thriller plot

Neil Blomkamp, “District 9” (2009)

The inspiration for this science fiction film arises from a context in which racial segregation and exploitation informed the basis for an entire society. In 1966, the South African government used a 1950 law to declare an area (District 6) in Cape Town a whites-only area and commenced clearing out the black communities there. Two years later, the forced removal of people began and by the 1980s, nearly 60,000 people had been turfed out. The intention behind the forced removal was to open up the area to developers (with the government perhaps benefiting financially as well). Thirty years later, with the Israeli government pursuing similar apartheid policies of removal against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and for similar reasons, little has changed and this is where “District 9” packs a strong punch.

The film opens its narrative some 28 years after an alien spacecraft has arrived in Johannesburg and deposited its load of sick and malnourished refugee aliens who resemble giant walking shrimp crustaceans there. The aliens are made to live in a slum area of the city and their conditions are portrayed as debased and grim. Under pressure from the public, all white, black and shades in-between, who fear and distrust the alien presence, the South African government decides to evict the aliens and force them to move elsewhere, and gives the job to a private security firm MNU. A rather ordinary administrator employee Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked by his sceptical father-in-law Piet Smit (Louis Minnaar), to oversee the relocation. While clearing out the aliens, Wikus enters one of the aliens’ homes and picks up a cylinder of alien liquid. He accidentally sprays the stuff into his face and from there the film traces Wikus’ transformation from human to alien.

When MNU discovers what is happening to Wikus, the company detains him under heavy security and begins investigating the effects of the transformation. Almost straight away, MNU scientists realise that Wikus’ changing DNA and blood enable him to fire weapons captured in the past from the aliens and Smit, on hearing the news, callously gives orders for the vivisection of Wikus. Wikus escapes and makes his way to District 9 where he enters the place where he picked up the cylinder and is reacquainted with the alien called Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and his son. When Johnson realises what is happening to Wikus, he and Wikus strike a bargain: if Wikus and he can return to MNU to retrieve the cylinder, whose juice is needed to power an underground jump-ship up to the mother-ship and kick-start it back into action after 28 long years, Johnson will try to find a cure to reverse Wikus’ transformation.

From then on, the action thriller story with its attendant violence spurs into action and takes viewers all the way to the end. Along the way, the film fleetingly touches on various contemporary issues: the practice of corporations under the pretence of scientific research exploiting humans and aliens for military purposes; the scapegoating of the aliens and the use of fear to impose police state measures on society as a whole; the outsourcing of government functions to private companies for profit and the negative consequences that arise as a result; and the examination of racism, xenophobia and greed. A powerful undercurrent in the film is the paradox of Wikus becoming more fully human in a moral sense as his physical humanity ebbs away: he becomes more compassionate and discovers reserves of bravery and heroism in defending and aiding Johnson and his son.

The use of actual interviews with Johannesburg residents (about Zimbabwean aliens) and fictional interviews with MNU employees gives the film an air of gritty reality as well as fleshing out details of the plot and its themes. Unfortunately however, these interviews and the layering they give to the film are quickly ushered into the background as the Hollywood-style action plot with its emphasis on stereotyped characters such as the psychotic mercenary Koobus Venter (David James) and Wikus’ long-suffering missus Tania (Vanessa Haywood). Too much of the film is given over to various gunfights, each more bloody and using more special FX than the last.

In the end, the film just about holds together thanks to Sharlto Copley’s acting. What a pity though, that Copley had to shoulder an otherwise rather sketchy film whose potential as sharp social commentary remains frustratingly dormant. The film’s conclusion appears open-ended and one senses that a sequel in which Johnson returns with the panacea to reverse Wikus’ transformation and Wikus confronts his callous father-in-law is needed.

Chappie: in need of a longer and better format to treat all its characters, narratives and themes

Neil Blomkamp, “Chappie” (2015)

In amongst the ruined buildings, the body count, the junk metal and unexploded cluster munitions that form the detritus long after the end credits of this cheerful movie have finished rolling, there’s a garbled message of sorts about taking charge of your destiny and being more than what you were born to be or what your circumstances have made you, along with an investigation of what consciousness and the soul are, whether both can transcend death and the limitations of physical biology. It’s this amalgamated theme that holds the film together and more than compensates for its stereotyped characters, the ragged story-line with frayed loose ends and an ending which needs a sequel to suck up the energy “Chappie” leaves behind.

The actual plot itself is not original and looks like something Mary Shelley and Isaac Asimov would have dreamt up together were they employed in an alternative universe as exhausted third-rate script-writers in a factory employing such people 16 hours a day, every day, with no time off for annual leave. I am aware of other reviews that have found bits and pieces of other films like Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop” in the plot. In a future Johannesburg, with crime rates higher than the city’s tallest buildings, the police force has contracted out SWAT team functions to Tetravaal, a company specialising in automated military security … for the police and similar civilian law-and-order institutions. The company comes up with robot scouts, the dream child of Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who spends his free time creating his own robots to keep house and an artificial intelligence program that miraculously bestows consciousness and sentience into otherwise inert machines. Deon needs an actual machine to test his program and a damaged robot police scout becomes his guinea pig. He uploads his program into the scout and – VOILA! – the machine goes live.

Three punks on the run (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser – Jones and Visser are members of South African hiphop group Die Antwoord), who need to steal $20 million to pay off Johannesburg’s biggest crime king-pin Hippo (Brandon Auret), find information about Deon and his robot scouts on the Internet, track him down and kidnap him and his sentient robot. The punks take charge of Deon’s creation (voiced by Sharlto Copley), christen it Chappie and, in their own questionable ways, teach Chappie how to survive in the criminal underground of Jo’burg, accept his differences and, er, somehow become a moral being and know the difference between right and wrong. In his own way, Deon tries to care for his new child in the way Viktor Frankenstein never did but Chappie becomes conflicted between the easy wealth promised by Ninja (Jones), Yolandi and Amerika (Cantillo) and the life offered by Deon which itself is as empty, meaningless and soul-destroying as that of the punks. At least the punks are able to choose where and how they’ll carry out their big heist.

Meanwhile, back at the Tetravaal ranch, Deon’s co-worker Vincent (Hugh Jackman) becomes disgruntled that their boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) is head over heels in love with Deon’s robot scouts which are paying off handsomely for the company. (Though she’s not keen herself on Deon’s sentient robot scheme – Bradley is only interested in Deon as an inventor of future cash-cows.) After Bradley tells Vincent that she is cutting off funding for his own Moose automated law-and-order project, Vincent – an ex-SAS employee with psychopathic tendencies born of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic fantasies – vows revenge on Deon to the extent that he is willing to sabotage the company’s profits and existence, and next thing you know, both Chappie and Deon are fighting for their lives just as the punks will be fighting for theirs if they can’t pull off their heist with Chappie’s help and pay off Hippo.

The two-hour film simply isn’t a large enough vehicle to deal with the plot as well as the character development, let alone explore its themes and the social context in which Chappie has to learn right from wrong and how to deal with his dysfunctional parents and the local bullies. Chappie’s moral development, which for most humans would take more than a life-time or two (or three …), is collapsed into the space of five days, or however long his battery lasts; unfortunately that of his “parents” is rather slower, at least until near the end where Ninja realises he is losing all his friends to Vincent’s Moose creation. Everything in the movie – the plot, the sub-plots, the characters and the issues that arise – needs more time for a fuller treatment that a linear visual story-telling format cannot provide. The result is a film that, however good it looks, feels very unfinished and in need of at least another six months’ worth of refinement. Characters are as cartoony as can be and Jackman and Weaver hardly raise much sweat as the film’s  potentially more villainous or at least morally ambiguous characters.

The socioeconomic context in which downtrodden corporate worker-bee joins forces with other marginalised people against an enemy that turns out to be another shunned corporate worker-bee – one can sympathise with Vincent’s feelings of rage against his employer – is always present but never questioned or investigated in any meaningful way. One might hope (in one’s dreams) that in a sequel, Chappie can persuade his new family to forgive Vincent and urge him to join them in their struggle to lead a social revolution against the combined forces of corporate and state fascism, represented by Tetravaal and the future South African government.

One worthy message that viewers might come away with is that technological solutions to social problems, be they replacements for human labour (as in Deon’s robot scouts) or drone-operated overkill (as in Vincent’s Moose creation), can create further ethical issues and dilemmas. At least when the robot scouts are disabled by Vincent’s criminal wickedness, Jo’burg’s unemployment problem plunges with 150,000 new jobs – for unemployed human police officers. Other new jobs, such as combing the city’s abandoned outskirts for unexploded cluster bombs or cleaning up the burnt car wrecks and newly made Swiss-cheese buildings left behind by the cartoon violence, are beckoning for willing humans.