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Buddha in Africa, directed by Nicole Schafer
Buddha in Africa, directed by Nicole Schafer

Buddha in Africa, directed by KwaZulu-Natal-based filmmaker, Nicole Schafer, will make its South African Premier in the International Documentary Competition at the 40th Durban International Film Festival (18 to 28 July).

This delicately observed documentary about a Malawian teenager caught between his African roots and Chinese upbringing; was chosen as the Opening Night feature for the Encounters Documentary Festival in Cape Town and Johannesburg where it also received a Backsberg Encounters Audience Award.  The film had its World Premiere at the prestigious Hot Docs Canadian International Festival in April and the Sydney International Film Festival in June with several more local and international festivals lined up for this year.

Buddha in Africa
Buddha in Africa

The film follows the intimate story of Enock Alu, a Malawian teenager growing up in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa. Once the star performer with dreams of becoming a martial arts hero like Jet Li, Enock, in his final year of school, has to make some tough decisions about his future.  Will he return to his relatives in his home village or study abroad in Taiwan? Set against China’s expanding influence on the continent, Buddha in Africa provides a unique insight into the impact of cultural soft power on the identity and imagination of a young boy and his community.

“Most of the focus of Chinese involvement in Africa has been on the economic impact, whereas this story shows the influence of Chinese culture,” says writer and director Nicole Schafer. “For so long Africa has been influenced by Western culture and economic systems. I was struck by how this orphanage is strangely reminiscent of the Christian missions during the colonial era, only here African children have Chinese names and instead of learning about the West, they are learning about Chinese culture and history. I feel that the orphanage is the perfect metaphor to explore not only the impact of Chinese involvement in Africa, but also as a mirror for the legacy of Western colonialism on the African continent.”

Enock Alu (16) is one of three hundred orphans from rural Malawi growing up in a charity-based NGO founded by a Buddhist monk from Taiwan. It is one of several similar institutions around Southern Africa aimed at using Chinese culture and Buddhism to uplift the lives of orphans in Africa.  

Filmed over five years, this essential film provides a valuable insight into some of the challenges affecting vulnerable children in Sub-Saharan Africa and poses complex questions around culture, identity, imperialism and the impact of foreign development aid.

 “I feel Enock’s internal conflict of trying to hold onto his own culture and then the sacrifices that come with embracing the opportunities afforded by Chinese engagement in many ways reflects the dilemma around the future development of the African continent. How does Africa move forward and participate within an increasingly globalised world without becoming victim to yet another system of economic and cultural domination?”

Buddha in Africa
Buddha in Africa

Schafer goes on to say, “There are big differences between Western and Eastern perspectives and we worked hard to balance the African and Chinese points of view in the film. I have been interested in how different audiences have responded to the film. International audiences seem to be more interested in the political context, while locally, in South Africa, audiences have been deeply moved by Enock’s personal story.  As a filmmaker, I have chosen to document his story, and am pleased it is providing a diverse global audience the opportunity to examine the complex and layered world in which we Africans find ourselves.”

The film premieres at DIFF on Saturday, July 20 at 4pm at Musgrave Sterkinekor, and has a second screening at Suncoast Cine Centre on Thursday, July 25 at 6.30pm.

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