Days of Cannibalism offers a captivating close-up of Chinese economic expansion in Africa.
With few words, but many revealing details, Berlin-based director Teboho Edkins observes the interactions of cattle herders and Chinese immigrant traders in Lesotho, the country where he grew up. The world-premiered Feb 22 2020 in Panorama Dokumente.
The culture clash of Chinese entrepreneurs entering foreign markets has featured in a number of recent documentaries on globalisation. Berlinale’s Days of Cannibalism, directed by US-born Teboho Edkins, follows films like A Tunnel (Nino Orjonikidze and Vano Arsenishvili, 2019), set in a remote Georgian mountain village, and Oscar-winner American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2019), about a reopened Ohio General Motors plant.
Many aspects of globalisation are difficult to capture on film. Documentaries (and fiction features) on the subject of international financial mechanisms, for example, usually rely heavily on talking heads and infographics. Which means, for good or evil, that they inevitably feel like going back to school.
In this sense, the Chinese expat worker silently surveying his strange new surroundings is to globalisation what the isolated polar bear on an ice floe is to climate change: a simple image, easy to grasp, suggestive of many of the underlying complications.
This visual, suggestive approach drives Days of Cannibalism, director Teboho Edkins’ documentary on Chinese economic migrants in the small African country of Lesotho.
Edkins, who now lives in Cape Town and Berlin, grew up in Lesotho, where he made a number of documentaries, including Coming of Age (2015).
In Days of Cannibalism, he eschews voice-overs, explanatory texts and interviews, focussing instead on observation. Such as when, after the pre-title sequence in busy Guangzhou where African traders purchase Chinese goods, Edkins directly cuts to the silent expanses of the Thaba-Tseka district in eastern Lesotho, where the rest of the documentary is set. The extreme widescreen contrast between urban chaos and pastoral tranquility introduces, in one single cut, the emotional underpinning of the culture clash that follows.
There is dialogue in the film, most notably at a local radio station, which concisely addresses some of the social tensions resulting from Chinese immigration. It doesn’t surprise one that director Edkins, as he explains in the press kit, suggested certain topics to the radio host. He likely did the same in other instances: most short dialogues in the film, like those between two Chinese business partners, succinctly express those pieces of the puzzle which he couldn’t have represented visually. One example being the closing of mines in neighbouring South Africa, which has led to unemployment and a rise in crime in Lesotho.
Edkins’ observations add up to a systematic, structural portrayal of globalisation in action. While the Chinese shop owners are making multi-million plans, the traditional Basotho cattle herders discuss their way of life. Meanwhile two cattle thieves have their day in court – cattle theft clearly being a major issue in the Thaba-Tseka district, as it is returned to repeatedly in the documentary.
The only real contact between the Lesothan and Chinese communities appears to be financial: the Chinese as employers and retailers, the Basotho as workers and customers. The Chinese complaining of theft, the Basotho resenting Chinese riches. The groups don’t mingle, and have their own community centres. There is hardly any common language: in the film, communication in English remains mostly limited to naming prices. The segregation between the two communities seems almost absolute: all the Chinese being traders, all the Basotho cattle herders.
When a documentary tries to elucidate the structures of globalisation using a specific example, the audience is asked to process information on two levels at the same time. In which case, minimizing exposition and maximizing visualisation helps avoid information overload. But it does mean the audience has to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves.
In Days of Cannibalism, it feels like there are a few pieces missing. For example, how is cattle theft related to Chinese immigration – or are they simply two aspects of the disintegration of traditional Lesotho society? A scene where Basotho herders complain about their new Chinese bosses (“The owners, the Chinese, only care about the money. But the actual work, taking care of them, that’s all up to us.”) seems crucial, as cattle, as the film makes clear, has existential importance to the Basotho – traditionally and economically. In the press kit however, Edkins states that very few Chinese actually own cattle, and this conflict is, as yet, negligible.
The refusal to use voice-overs, texts or interviews also means that the audience never learns that during a dramatic robbery, shown via security footage, the filmmaker himself is in the frame. In the press kit, he explains that his “b. It is a puzzling omission.
These relatively minor quibbles aside, however, Days of Cannibalism is a fascinating and attractively shot exploration of two peoples meeting, putting a human face to the unease of global economic developments.