Complex doccie, Buddha in Africa, has been a labour of love for its creator

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Set against China’s expanding influence on the continent, Buddha in Africa provides a unique insight into the forces of cultural soft power on the identity and imagination of an African boy and his school friends growing up between two cultures.

GETTING her award-winning documentary, Buddha in Africa, to the big screen has been a labour of love for KZN Midlands filmmaker Nicole Schafer, writes ESTELLE SINKINS.

The powerful documentary, which follows the intimate story of a Malawian teenager growing up in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Africa, won the best South African documentary prize at the Durban International Film Festival in July, an accolade which means that the film is being considered for the documentary feature qualifying festival hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences.

Schafer is trying to play down the news, but the truth is her documentary could automatically qualify for consideration for an Oscar nomination in 2020.

It’s the cherry on the cake for what has been an incredible journey for the filmmaker, who has seen Buddha in Africa have its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April.

It also opened the Encounters Documentary Festival in Cape Town and Johannesburg in June, where it received a Backsberg Encounters Audience Award and was in the official selection at this year’s Sydney International Film Festival.

Buddha in Africa had its European premiere at the Visioni dal Mondo International Documentary Festival in Milan last weekend where it won best international documentary in the International Panorama ‘A Window onto the Future’ section.

Schafer was thrilled with the news, which was delivered to her during the  Hilton Arts Festival, which she had chosen to attend – rather than Milan – as she wanted to share her work with the people who have supported her on her journey.

That started when Schafer was working in Malawi as a video journalist and decided to do a documentary about orphans in the country at the time Madonna was adopting her children.

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Nicole Schafer.

The situation, she says, is a complex one. “For the government the ideal choice would be for orphaned children to grow up in an extended family model, but that is under strain, so the only other choice is for them to go to a community-based organisation.

“That is why there are still places like the Chinese Buddhist orphanage that we feature in the film. They are allowed to exist because the government knows that kids who are left in villages will be left behind. There is nothing going on for them there.

“My film highlights a really complex situation. Many of these young children get a great opportunity to study and achieve, but it comes at a cost. They lose their connection to their communities and often their ability to speak their mother tongue.”

The film’s timing is also extremely relevant, with African governments choosing to forge closer links with China. They need the money to help them fund projects but some critics say it is simply another form of African colonisation.

Schafer is loathe to get too embedded in that particular debate, but admits that in the past decade it has been clearly seen how many countries have chosen to sever ties with Taiwan in favour of China and that here in South Africa, the numbers of Chinese businesses has significantly increased.

She is, however, pleased that Buddha in Africa is opening a space for that debate.

Returning to the film’s formative stage, Schafer initially pitched it as a news feature for the Africa journal. Unfortunately it was the time of the global financial crisis and they were unable to pay for her efforts.

“So there I was, stuck in Malawi, with a great story that I couldn’t sell,” Schafer said.

Shortly afterwards, she and her husband William LeCordeur returned to South Africa, and that was when Schafer had the idea to submit her story as a pilot for documentary funding at the Durban International Film Festival. She won the prize and began what would eventually be a journey of some eight years.

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A scene from Buddha in Africa.

“I thought I would shoot the film over two years, but it took that long just to get all the structures in place. And being in SA made it hard for me to keep up my relationship with Enoch, my central character.

“I could only spend about three weeks in Malawi about twice a year, but luckily in my final year of filming I was able to spend more time with him … and that was when he was experiencing a lot of conflict in what was his final year at school.”

Schafer felt a huge responsibility to ensure that Enock was happy with the film. Now a student in Taiwan, they keep in touch via WhatsApp and he has told her that he loves the final product.

“He told me that he feels it reflects the challenges and contrasting world that he grew up in,” says Schafer, “and he loves that people are taking the time to watch Buddha in Africa and to under stand his side of the story.”

With her time limited to small stints, Schafer admits it was a challenge to create a movie with continuity.

The fact that it is so powerful and affecting is a tribute to her long hours in the editing suite, sewing together thousands of hours of footage. She worked on the rough cut for three years.

Asked what she believes the biggest challenge was during the creation of Buddha in Africa, Schafer says it was balancing her need to be an independent observer while also feeling a deep empathy for her subject.

“Enock was clearly looking for a mentor figure, a parental figure, but as a documentary maker, you have to learn to keep your distance. I couldn’t allow him to get too close and then leave him disappointed when the film ended,” she added.

Buddha in Africa is set to be shown at the Unicef Innocenti Film Festival in Florence in October to commemorate 30 years of the signing of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, something Schafer is very proud of.

She admits to feeling slightly overwhelmed by how much support the film has garnered since its release and says that one of the most interesting things about watching people as they come out of screenings is how different their mindsets are.

“It really is creating a conversation, which is what I believe documentary filmmaking is all about. It’s interesting to watch the different communities we have in SA and how cultural tensions play out. I also question how we as people, and as a country, engage in an increasingly global world.

“Are we seeing history repeat itself in Africa, or is the continent choosing to engage with other countries on its own terms?”

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