Home Reviews Sheffield DocFest/Tribeca review: Made in Ethiopia by Xinyan Yu, Max Duncan

Sheffield DocFest/Tribeca review: Made in Ethiopia by Xinyan Yu, Max Duncan

Made in Ethiopia by Xinyan Yu, Max Duncan

The impact of economic development in rural Ethiopia is brought strikingly into focus in Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan’s absorbing and fascinating documentary Made in Ethiopia, which explores the grand ambitions for a massive Chinese industrial park in a remote farming town as seen – largely – through the eyes of three very different women, all of whose futures will be hugely affected during the future development of the project.

The film – which world-premiered at Tribeca before its international premiere at Sheffield DocFest – explores this new frontier of globalisation, which Chinese investors are laying the ground-work for by investing in a country’s infrastructure and hoping future projects will attract further international investment. 

Some 200 Chinese investors have built Ethiopia’s first industrial park, a special economic zone designed to oversee dozens of factories. Thousands of workers descended on Dukem, a dusty farming town, that is the location of Ethiopia’s ambition to be the manufacturing powerhouse of Africa and also – from the viewpoint of local politics – help alleviate the issues of (un)employment for young people.

The film opens in tantalisingly vibrant style as the camera follows a wedding between a local woman and a Chinese man, before some of the wedding party drive off towards a vast sign indicating the extensive business complex that is the Eastern Industry Zone. A little on-screen background information explains China’s plans to “court” and develop Africa – and Ethiopia in particular.

The three women who form the narrative spine of the film offer very different viewpoints of the story. The factory complex’s forthright Chinese director Motto is introduced in July 2019 leading another Chinese executive around a shoemaking factory, explaining how 103 companies are now part of the complex. Young Ethiopian Beti is a worker in one of the factories, having left her family to try and be independent (she and fellow workers earn around $50 a month), and is bemused by just how many people surround her at the complex. Meanwhile Ethiopian farmer Workinesh helps farm land near to the complex which has been earmarked for Phase Two of the expansion.

The film dips into their lives over subsequent years. Motto, often stressed and tired, talks with her young daughter who lives back in China, while also trying to further plans for the complex; Beti eventually leaves her job on the factory floor for an administrative position, and Workinesh is increasingly angry and frustrated about unfulfilled government promises to provide her new land in exchange for the land earmarked for Phase Two development. 

But when Covid and then civil war hits the country, everything spirals out of control. 

As Motto comments: “First pandemic and then civil war. All in one year – everything that could have happened has happened. These investors watch the news about Ethiopia every day. Who’d dare invest in this environment? They wouldn’t come to our Phase Two for free! Even if I paid them.”

Against this fluid and dramatic backdrop, the film actually works best in its quieter moments: Motto chatting to her daughter but always aware work comes first; Beti and her young friends at the hairdressers or religious ceremonies chatting about their lives; Chinese supervisors eating and hanging out together, with the young Chinese women commenting how beautiful the Ethiopian women are; local mayor Teshome underlining how the region needs hospitals and schools as well as factories; and Workinesh in her small village, teaching her daughter mathematics. The opening wedding sequence is  – sadly – never developed, and would have made a fascinating story to sit alongside the insight into local lives.

As international investors pull out, the Dukem government sends a letter accusing the industrial park of failing to develop Phase Two or to provide for the community. As the film closes in March 2023 much has changed, and we learn the eventual diverse fates of all three women.

Shot over four years, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into modern-day Ethiopia and into two colliding worlds: an industrial juggernaut driven by profit and progress, and a vanishing countryside where life is still shaped by nature. It succeeds wonderfully as an insight into the lives of these three women, offering balance, context and compassion as each try and do the best they can to support themselves and their families. It is often a delicate and nuanced film set against the broad brushstrokes of industrial development, civil war and a global pandemic, with the realities of real lives offering an enthralling journey into a little seen part of Africa.

Canada-Ethiopia-US-UK-Denmark, 2024, 91mins
Dirs: Xinyan Yu, Max Duncan
Production: Hard Truth Films, Dogwoof, Gobez Media
International sales: Dogwoof
Producer: Tamara Dawit, Xinyan Yu, Max Duncan
Cinematography: Max Duncan
Editor: Biel Andrés, Jeppe Bødskov, Siyi Chen
Music: Ali Helnwein
With: Motto Ma (Ma Futao), Betelohem ‘Beti’ Ashenafi, Workinesh Chala