If you were looking for evidence of Chinese designs on building a modern-day empire, you would have to look no further than Africa: a vast continent whose natural resources – and government borrowing sprees – have helped fuel the engine of China’s economic growth. So goes the conventional logic, at least; yet the reality of Chinese investment and influence on the continent is more complex, as evidenced by South African director Nicole Schafer’s “Buddha in Africa,” a years-long study of one teenager growing up in a Chinese Buddhist orphanage in Malawi.

Schafer’s documentary, which screens at IDFA, is a sensitive portrayal of a young man torn between the kung-fu dreams and Confucian doctrine of his Buddhist upbringing, and a Malawian culture whose powerful roots might ultimately be holding him back. Through the lens of one teenager’s journey, “Buddha in Africa” paints a complicated portrait of what’s been described as the latest chapter in Africa’s long struggle against colonization.

Schafer spoke to Variety about Chinese soft power in Africa, the convergence of two drastically different cultures, and how her South African ancestry offers a distinctive lens on the 21st-century scramble for Africa.

You first came across the story of a Buddhist orphanage in Malawi when you were working there as a journalist. What did you expect to find at the Amitofo Care Center (ACC) before you saw it with your own eyes?

I was working on a story for Reuters’ magazine program Africa Journal about orphans in Malawi at the time that Madonna was adopting her second child, Mercy, in 2009. I was actually quite surprised during this period of research that there were quite a number of different orphanages or institutions promoting different cultural practices, from Dutch Reformed Christian institutions, to Islamic Turkish ones. Madonna subsequently set up her Kabbalist institution, too.

With this Chinese Buddhist orphanage, it also happened to be the time when Malawi and other parts of Africa were entering into official diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and there was all this debate about China’s supposed colonization of Africa. I felt this orphanage was an interesting way of engaging in these debates. For the first time, one was seeing the impact of Chinese cultural influence on the lives of these African children. It played into many of the Western fears about China’s supposed colonization of not only the continent’s resources, but this idea of China colonizing African culture, and African children, which is essentially the future of the African continent. I was really captivated.

China’s growing influence in Africa is almost always depicted within the framework of economic policies, trade, foreign resource extraction. Did you think the use of “soft power” on display at the orphanage offered an important counter-balance to that narrative?

It’s very unusual to find a place where one can so vividly see the convergence of these two very different cultures coming together under one roof. Despite the extensive numbers of Chinese nationals that have come into Africa in recent years, African and Chinese communities still live very separate lives—I think primarily because of the cultural barriers. The language makes the Chinese culture certainly very inaccessible to Western, African people. In that respect, this orphanage is very unique. I felt it was a very interesting way to look at the cultural differences, some of the tensions that exist between these two cultures, but at the same time, the very real relationships that are being forged interculturally through personal story.

How did you find Enock, and how long did it take to follow his growth and his journey over the course of this film?

When I first went to the Amitofo Care Center, I was just doing a little video feature. I went in there for half a day to film the story, and the organization actually put me in touch with Enock. I asked if they could identify one or two kids who were fluent in Mandarin, and good at kung-fu, who would be able to talk to me. Enock has always been one of the organization’s model students. He was always one of the favorites. The organization do these international tours for fund raising, and he was always one of the star performers.

It took many years to capture his story and to build access. When I first started filming, he was very used to doing all the promotional inserts for the organization, so he would say all the right things. He was very rehearsed in front of the camera. So it took quite awhile for me to break through that, and to get through to the real Enock. At the same time, he was also growing up, so I had all these other challenges. It was quite a challenge to try to capture his full story. It took a good four years of filming.

Lazy loaded image
Thinking Strings Media

Master Hui Li, the Buddhist monk from Taiwan who established the ACC, seems to have genuine warmth for the orphans in his care, but he’s also condescending and often blames Malawians themselves for the fact that their country is poor. What did that attitude reveal to you about Master Li, his intentions, and the orphanages he’s establishing across Africa?

There are many scenes in the film that show this kind of tension between the Chinese characters being caring and supportive, but at the same time harsh and patronizing. While the monk and other characters have good intentions and mean well, I think there is a lack of awareness around the historical context between Chinese and African communities. This idea that the poverty of Africa is the fault of Africans rather than the centuries of Western colonialism, and then the stifling loans and structural adjustment programs that came after “independence,” is a view that is very much echoed by the West in relation to Africa.

As a white South African my ancestry represents the legacy of colonialism on the continent. So from this perspective I feel scenes like this are very much a mirror of my own context. The monk is able to provide Enock and his friends with a remarkable opportunity and the possibility of a future that would have been very different had they remained in their villages. But the question is to what extent the monk will be able to “save” Africa without perpetuating the cycles of the past.

Towards the end of the film, as Enock prepares to make the difficult decision to either stay in Malawi or continue his studies in Taiwan, he wrestles with the personal sacrifices he’ll have to make – leaving his country, his family and friends – in pursuit of a better life. How do you think that dynamic plays out at the national level, and the prospects for development that China is offering Malawi and other African nations?

I see Enock’s dilemma very much represents the dilemma around the future development of the African continent, especially within a globalized context. It’s not only about China and Africa, it’s also about Africa’s relations with other foreign nations, including the former colonizers. I suppose it’s just this idea that the key to the future of the continent’s development is always held by outsiders, and that in order to succeed, we always have to adapt to foreign value systems and policies. I think Enock’s story challenges this idea in very refreshing ways.