Documenting Life Inside a ‘China-Africa Factory’
Zhang Yong is one of just a handful of Chinese scholars specializing in the study of African television and film. A filmmaker himself, he has led or co-directed several major documentary series on grassroots engagement between Chinese and Africans, including 2018’s “Africans in Yiwu” and 2019’s “TAZARA: A Journey Without an End.”
In 2020, Zhang, who has a doctorate from the Beijing Film Academy, was named a research fellow at the College of Media and International Culture at Zhejiang University. In 2021, he completed his first independent feature-length documentary, “Bobby’s Factory,” which aired on Nigeria’s national broadcasting network NTV earlier this year.
Over the course of 84 minutes, “Bobby’s Factory” tells the story of a small cosmetics factory outside the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu. The film focuses on Bobby, a Nigerian businessman who owns and operates the plant with his Chinese wife, as he navigates the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eschewing a narrator, the film builds its narrative organically, capturing the complex dynamics between employee and employer, and between Bobby, who frequently fraternizes with his staff, and his wife Alina, who keeps a close watch over product quality and employee output.
Zhang’s documentary is not just limited to Bobby’s story, however. He devotes plenty of screen time to the factory’s young Chinese workers, capturing their precarity and struggles. Late last month, I sat down with Zhang to discuss his film and what it reveals about the cultural and institutional impediments to developing closer relationships between Chinese and Africans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Flair Donglai Shi: Your film has two English titles: “Bobby’s Factory” and “China-Africa Factory.” Why? Does the title “China-Africa Factory” imply that Bobby’s story is representative of Chinese-African relations?
Zhang Yong: The inspiration for the title “China-Africa Factory” came from Bobby. He used the term to describe his factory during one of our discussions, and I felt it suited the film well. Bobby was the first African I ever met who had set up a factory in China. Most Africans doing business here are retailers who buy goods in cities like Yiwu and Guangzhou and sell them back in their countries.
Later on, however, my friends kept comparing the film to the 2019 documentary “American Factory.” That film recounts the cultural clashes and communication breakdowns faced by a Chinese entrepreneur as he attempted to revive a factory in the United States, as well as his struggles adapting to the local labor system. But the subject of our film wasn’t new to Yiwu. Bobby has been in China for over a decade and he’s very familiar with the Chinese business world. What I wanted to capture instead was how his and other local factories were operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn’t a specifically cross-cultural theme, so I now feel that the more personal title “Bobby’s Factory” is more appropriate.
As for whether the film is representative of Chinese-African relations, I think it does represent the people-to-people level of Chinese-African exchanges. Recent Chinese films and television series involving African elements, such as “Wolf Warrior 2” and “Operation Red Sea,” mostly portray things like the evacuation of Chinese citizens from warzones or peacekeeping operations. The people who are ultimately most involved in Chinese-African exchanges are ordinary citizens, but the media shows us very little about their lives. I feel that our film fills in certain blanks.
Shi: Why emphasize the factory, rather than an individual or a family?
Zhang: I think that, during the pandemic, there have been many stories that have unfolded behind closed doors. I felt it was only appropriate that “Bobby’s Factory” reflect this, so I chose to set the story in a closed space: in this case, inside the walls of a factory. I think that this closed-off feeling is an accurate reflection of the time we’re living in. Many minor characters in the factory have little control over their destinies and their sense of despair is palpable. The only bird’s eye shot in the entire movie is of the factory, indicating that the fate of the characters and that of the factory are closely related.
Shi: Other than Bobby and his wife, another important character in the film is their young employee, Defei. The film’s narrative tension mainly results from the conflict caused by Defei’s transfer from warehouse management to the assembly line. Bobby and his wife disagree on how to resolve this conflict. Is the portrayal of this incident a way to explore the general living circumstances of the migrant worker class and “small-town youths”?
Zhang: Yes. At the start of the film, Defei oversees not just the warehouse, but also human resources. On many occasions, we see him take responsibility for recruiting new workers. He’s Bobby’s right-hand man; and Bobby delegates many important tasks to him. So, when he’s demoted to a regular worker, what he’s most indignant about isn’t the fact that his pay has been reduced by 500 yuan ($75) a month, but the change in his rank, which he feels isn’t in line with his talent. As a result, his dreams for the factory are broken and conflict breaks out between him, Bobby, and Bobby’s wife, Alina.
This conflict reflects the difficulties that small-town youths face after joining the migrant workforce. These youths have been swept up by China’s modernization. They yearn to integrate into the center, to enter the mainstream. They have their own dreams. But they’re often kept out. In the case of Defei, at the end of the film he dons a wig, disguising himself, while his girlfriend puts on gold jewelry — a sign of her continued yearning for a better life.
Shi: You’re one of only a handful of Chinese documentary directors to have made Chinese-African relations the long-term focus of their work. What first drew your attention to this subject?
Zhang: When I was choosing the subject of my doctoral dissertation at the Beijing Film Academy, some of my classmates focused on Chinese film, others focused on Europe, but I turned my focus toward Africa. In the field of film and television studies, Africa has long been stigmatized and stereotyped relative to other regions. Where are the truly African films? What is Africa’s own cinematic style? What are its historical and contemporary characteristics? I have consistently kept these questions in mind as I explore and create. Later, I was lucky enough to be named a visiting scholar at Seattle University, where I shadowed the Nigerian professor Saheed Adejumobi, who introduced me to many Nollywood films as well as African art films. After that, I had the privilege of travelling to South Africa and working under the Johannesburg-based director Faeeq Dyler. In this way, I transitioned from passive research to a more hands-on approach to learning.
If you want Africans to get to know China, and Chinese people to get to know Africa, purely academic exploration is perhaps not enough. My field, film and media studies, is an extremely hands-on discipline. So I wanted to see if I could create some works that would reinforce our mutual understanding and form a bridge between China and Africa. I think that documentaries are the best medium one could hope for in this regard, because their source material is completely authentic: Usually, people aren’t playing characters and things happen unexpectedly. By continually following and filming subjects, as well as making observations, we can gain a more intuitive, profound understanding of African humanities and Chinese-African relations.
Shi: We all know how difficult it is to make independent documentaries in China, but are there any particular difficulties that arise when making documentaries about Chinese-African relations? In your experience, what aspects of Chinese-African film and TV exchanges could be improved?
Zhang: Cultural exchanges between China and Africa have been heavily promoted by state governments in the last decade. But little has been done to make these exchanges a reality at the local level. I think that most Chinese still don’t understand Africa. Some people online have expressed strong racist and nationalist views and objected to us telling the stories of Africans in China. But it’s precisely these voices of opposition that make us feel that our work is meaningful — that we should create more and do it better.
Chinese documentary-makers aren’t like certain documentary-makers in the West, who can get funding from non-governmental organizations. I paid some of the preliminary costs for this film out of my own pocket, and still do not have the funds for a lot of promotional activities. Because Chinese-African relations remains a relatively marginal field, we didn’t expect the film to receive a lot of publicity. However, I have received some fairly positive feedback so far — for example, Yale University has added “Bobby’s Factory” to their archives, and even offered to pay out royalties. Meanwhile, although it was free-to-air, the fact that NTV screened this documentary three weeks in a row brought me and my team great joy, as very few Chinese documentaries receive that much airtime overseas.
I think that film and television are a kind of bridge. Before they come to China, many Africans get to know our country from Bruce Lee films. It’s only upon arriving that they discover that not every Chinese person knows kung fu. Similarly, the Chinese public’s stereotypes of the African peoples are reinforced by their depictions in Western and Chinese commercial films like “Hotel Rwanda,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Wolf Warrior 2.” When it comes to building mutual understanding between Africa and China, films currently don’t play a very positive role.
It’s important for the film and television industries to challenge these stereotypes. After all, we live in an age of images: far more people watch videos than read books. Filmmakers should make greater efforts to build bridges. Since the late 1990s, so many Africans have come to study, work, and live in China, and so many people from China are now living in Africa. Why aren’t we asking them to tell their stories?
I recall that at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation last year, President Xi Jinping announced plans for hosting African film festivals in China, and Chinese film festivals in Africa. But these plans have yet to materialize, and the institutional support for them is still lacking. We as concerned scholars and media workers have been continually making appeals in the hopes that, with the help of a non-commercial platform (like a film festival), films can act as a kind of window, giving people insight into each other’s cultures.
Shi: Are there any new projects you’ve been working on that you’d like to share?
Zhang: I’m currently in production on two new projects: a companion piece to “Africans in Yiwu” called “Chinese Meet Africa,” and another documentary miniseries, “Post-90s’ China-Africa Stories.” I decided to make “Chinese Meet Africa” because I realized that most of my previous films, including “Bobby’s Factory,” told the stories of Africans in China, but I’ve always hoped to tell more stories about Chinese people in Africa. After all, there are way more Chinese living in Africa than there are Africans living in China.
As for “Post-90s’ China-Africa Stories,” we picked one young African and one young Chinese person per installment and followed them as they interacted with and came to understand each other. People born in the 1990s are a relatively internationalized generation. They know more about both Africa and China — and are more tolerant. They are the future of Chinese-African relations.
This interview was conducted as part of the Africa Lounge podcast, with the help of Yuan Mingqing, Deng Zheyuan, and Zhang Lifang.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the 2021 documentary “Bobby’s Factory.” From Douban)