‘Made in Ethiopia’ Review: A Compelling Look at Chinese Influence in Eastern Africa

In “Made in Ethiopia,” directors Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan take the macro issue of China’s influence in Africa and present it provocatively through the micro lens of its effect on a few Chinese and Ethiopian individuals striving for a better life. The film is set at a Chinese industrial complex in Dukem, a small town southeast of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. It follows an ambitious Chinese businesswoman trying to expand the complex with the help of Ethiopian bureaucrats and the consequences this expansion has on a factory worker and a farming family that lives nearby.

The businesswoman is Motto Ma, a delusionally ambitious outsider who says things like, “The industrial complex is a tourist hotspot. We are considering selling tickets.” She makes up the lie, believes and then hypes it. Motto (the film refers to all the subjects with just their first names) is both charming and wily, the type of person who would sing at her company’s function despite not having any talent. At one point, she announces to the camera, “I starved myself to death for two days to fit this dress.” She’s willing to cajole, threaten and push anyone to get what she wants. She thinks she understands what Ethiopians need, but she’s all hubris. All of this makes her the perfect subject for a documentary.

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Motto is such a loud and colorful character that she overshadows her Ethiopian counterparts. Contrasting Motto is Betelihem “Beti” Ashenafi, a quiet factoryworker with modest dreams. Motto claims that her work would make Ethiopians realize their dreams within their lifetime. Something unattainable without her industrial complex expansion. But in Beti, we see how wrong and far-fetched those claims are. Despite working hard and trying to elevate herself, she’s stuck in a never-ending circle of thwarted aspirations. However, because Motto dominates most of the film, Beti’s story comes through as an afterthought.

Providing a stronger counterpoint to Motto is Workinesh Chala and her family. They are farmers whose land was taken by the government so the Chinese industrial complex can expand. They were promised replacement land which they never received. As “Made in Ethiopia” unspools, Workinesh and her young daughter Rehoboth give the film its most compelling scenes. As Rehoboth describes the source of her mother’s resilience, “Made in Ethiopia” gets to show the Ethiopian side of this complicated quandary clearly. With this family’s story, the film finally demonstrates how cultural differences and power imbalance can impede even the most generous of intentions.

“Made in Ethiopia” is ostensibly a film about clash and conflict, and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Indeed, it presents an epic scene in which some of the Ethiopian factory workers rebel against the hard working conditions. The scene is deepened by focusing on Edae, the factory translator who mediates between the workers and their supervisor. Centering Edae shifts the narrative from a straight David and Goliath story with clear heroes and villains into a complicated morality tale of ever-changing priorities and loyalties.

The film includes many provocative images. While showing the wedding of a Chinese man and an Ethiopian woman, the camera pans to a stash of cash being presented on a silver tray to the bride’s parents. The filmmakers also show Beti and her friends feeding each other and the farmers praying under a huge tree for the rain to come. Since these are traditions and customs of Ethiopian people, in presenting them juxtaposed with a Western gaze, the film ends up exoticizing the same people it claims to realistically depict.

Despite an imbalance in perspectives, “Made in Ethiopia” ends up presenting a compelling narrative about how Chinese influence in Ethiopia impacts both expats and native people. The camera is patient and probing, and the story weaves in political and social context successfully. The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, should be able to start many conversations about these topical issues.

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