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“I Don’t Think We Ever Expected To See a Carbon Copy of China’s Industrial Experience [in Ethiopia], and We Certainly Didn’t”: Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu on Their Tribeca-Debuting Made in Ethiopia

Made in Ethiopia

While Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu’s Made in Ethiopia takes place in the titular country, it in many ways echoes last year’s Central African Republic-set Eat Bitter, co-directed by Ningyi Sun and Pascale Appora-Gnekindy, which similarly explored China’s capitalist push throughout the continent; and specifically from the POV of the shared personal toll it’s taking on individuals from very unalike cultures.

In this case we’re introduced to an inexhaustibly optimistic woman named Motto, the upbeat Chinese head of a mega industrial park in a rural Ethiopian town. She’s also a true believer that the Chinese dream can be exported to provide a “win-win-win” situation for all. Unfortunately for Motto, a long-distance mom often unable to make it home even for the holidays, everyday Ethiopians — women like the underpaid/overworked factory employee Beti and soon-to-be displaced farmer Workinesh — are finding the promise of globalization to be closer to a curse. Which inevitably brings up the question of whether today’s rising tide of industrialization is only lifting yachts not boats.

Just prior to the doc’s Tribeca premiere today, June 6, Filmmaker caught up with the co-directors to learn all about Made in Ethiopia (and of course, making a film in Ethiopia).

Filmmaker: You both worked in China for over a decade, and DC-based Xinyan is originally from Wuhan, while your producer Tamara Dawit is Ethiopian-Canadian. Though I noticed you also have DFI involvement with your editing team mostly based in Copenhagen. So how exactly did this highly international project come about?

Duncan and Yu: We met while working in China. Many of the stories we covered there were, in one way or another, tied to the country’s extraordinary industrialization and urbanization. This was also a period in which China started to invest heavily in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Ethiopia became a major trading partner, and at one point was growing so fast that people started to refer to it as the “China of Africa.”

On the first recce to Ethiopia we found an incredible diversity of interaction, from giant infrastructure projects to private entrepreneurs, and the country felt so alive with possibility. We instantly saw the potential for a surprising and cinematic film. We teamed up with Tamara, whose recently released feature documentary Finding Sally really impressed us; her experience and expertise in Ethiopia became essential to the film. Our local field producers, Goush and Sura, played a fundamental role in helping us understand and build trust with our Ethiopian characters, especially the village community we follow.

Financing a highly international documentary has presented both opportunities and challenges. There’s a preconception that stories set in Africa can’t attract a mainstream audience, so we’ve had to work that bit harder. Having an international team meant we didn’t qualify for many grants with nationality requirements, but it did allow us to tap into resources globally. The majority of our rights are in the US, where there has been great sources of funding and fellowships. We received post-production support from the Danish Film Institute, which has an amazing system that supports Danish talent to work on international films. We also won pitch prizes in South Korea and Canada, which helped us build momentum along the way.

Filmmaker: I’m guessing you had to go through both Chinese and Ethiopian officials to gain access to the industrial park and perhaps to your characters. So what sorts of government restrictions and production challenges overall did you face? Why were you even allowed to film in the first place?

Duncan and Yu: As journalists we’re well aware of the challenges of filming in different countries, especially for longer productions like this. For visas and permits for our production we had to go through the Ethiopian government, which wanted to encourage reporting on its industrialization and modernization.

The industrial park is run by a private company and not directly affiliated with either government. At no point did any side interfere with or restrict our work. Having created almost 20,000 jobs, the park was something of a poster child for Chinese investment in Ethiopia and had historically been open to international media. Its director Motto, who had spent over a decade in Ethiopia and spoke great English and Amharic, was keen to help fill the gap of understanding between Chinese and Ethiopians, as well as demystify some of the existing tropes around China’s presence in Africa.

We invested a lot of time in building our relationships and maintaining trust with the subjects of our film. We lived in factory dorms for weeks and embedded in the community, which is why you see such intimate access to both locations and characters in the film. Perhaps the biggest challenges were during the COVID pandemic, when we couldn’t travel, and during the civil war, when there was greater sensitivity towards outsiders.

Filmmaker: How did you decide which characters to follow? Did you consider others, including men? Was everyone even aware of each other’s participation in the film?

Duncan and Yu: When we first started filming we were openminded about who would be our principal characters and cast the net quite wide. In some ways the decision to focus on three women as our principal subjects started as an organic one, but became more intentional as the film progressed.

To start with, around 80 percent of the workforce in the industrial park is female, so focusing on a female factory worker like Beti was always our intention. When we met Motto she was such a strong presence  — a woman in a sea of men right at the heart of the park’s operations — that it was instantly clear she could carry the film. In the village we decided to follow Workinesh because she was progressive and eloquently expressed what it is to be a rural woman trying to give her daughters a better future than she had had access to. The more time we spent the more we saw these three women’s stories mirroring each other — each on a different rung of the industrial ladder trying to climb to the next, all reassessing their personal and professional priorities as they went.

Filmmaker: I read in the press notes that you were inspired to shoot in Ethiopia since its industrialization, urbanization and economic privatization seemed to echo China’s experience in the ’80s and ’90s. That said, these are obviously two very different cultures. So what most surprised you over the four years of filming? Did you have certain expectations upended — or not?

Duncan and Yu: While some of the macroeconomic trends were similar I don’t think we ever expected to see a carbon copy of China’s industrial experience, and we certainly didn’t.

A concept the film raises is the gap between our dreams and our reality, as Motto puts it. The film delves deep into what motivates both Chinese and Ethiopian communities when it comes to work. It’s interesting to observe that, as someone who grew up poor in China, Motto firmly believes in the idea of working hard now and enjoying the benefits it brings later. In Chinese there’s a phrase that says we have to “eat bitterness first to taste sweetness later.” So much of the relentless pursuit of wealth and profit is driven by the fear of returning to poverty, and the longing for prosperity for the next generation.

In many ways Motto tries to convince people that if her own dream could become a reality, that’s something that’s also achievable for Ethiopians. We did witness the success story of a handful of Ethiopians who went from workers to managers; but to many workers and farmers like Beti and Workinesh there’s just not enough incentive and security, or a reliable system to protect their vision and make sure that their sacrifices and hard work actually materialize into better lives for themselves and their families.

Stories about China and Africa often paint Chinese as exploitative and Africans as victims. But the deeper we went the more we felt drawn into an extremely complex and multifaceted narrative. The relationship between Chinese and Ethiopian communities was nuanced — there was no shortage of friendship, marriage, and admiration for both cultures, but also power imbalances and explicit and inexplicit racism. In Workinesh’s village, opinions about relocation and industrialization differ vastly among community members. At many village meetings we’d listen to people debating about the local government and visions for their future. It was no small feat to present a chorus of voices that capture the complexity of this story.

When we started the project in 2019 Ethiopia was being celebrated as a success story of African development. But in the four years we spent filming we experienced a period of huge turmoil, brought first by COVID and then by a raging civil war that tore up the country’s development blueprint. It showed us just how fragile growth can be, and how quickly those gains can be undone. We witnessed what that actually feels like for the individuals trying to build a better future, and the sense of frustration and hopelessness that they all felt.

Filmmaker: Finally, have all the participants, including those running Eastern Industry Park and the surrounding community, seen the final cut? What’s been the various reactions?

Duncan and Yu: We showed the final film to the core subjects to ensure they were comfortable with their participation, and for us it was vital for them to see the final output. All three felt that the film fairly represented their perspectives and individual experiences through a very challenging period. For them it was in some ways the first time really seeing the other side of the story, and intimately understanding each other’s perspective and motivations.

We hope this film can serve as conversation starters for individuals and communities going through similar struggles in other parts of the world. After the initial festival premieres, we hope the film will be selected for a festival in Addis Ababa for broader distribution before we hold community screenings as part of our impact campaign.

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