Legendary documentarian Wang Bing is at HAF this year with his new project “I Come from Ikotun,” which follows two Nigerian families with a foothold in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou over the course of the pandemic.
Known for his epically long, unflinching works that have previously tackled sensitive issues like China’s brutal re-education camps, Wang will this time turn his lens on a more cross-cultural subject. In a statement, he said he wanted in this project to explore issues affecting Guangzhou’s African community “in the context of the China-Africa trade, the COVID-19 crisis, racism, colonialism and discrimination.”
One thread of the film follows Nigerian migrant Kingsley, who has worked long days as a barber in Guangzhou for four years yet still can’t afford to pay the $3,000 needed to register his shop and obtain the right work and residence permits. He lives out of a McDonald’s restaurant.
After he returns to Lagos in 2019 to await a visa renewal, Kingsley and his wife rent a stall at the titular Ikotun Market there, where they sell made-in-China products that he has brought back. By the time his visa finally comes through, however, the pandemic has struck, leaving him unable to return to Guangzhou.
The other thread of the film follows Evelyn, a pregnant Nigerian single mother living in Guangzhou trying to support her six-year-old daughter. When COVID-19 strikes, tensions arise between the African community and Chinese locals. Evelyn and her children struggle as Africans are evicted from their residences or forced into quarantine.
Wang trailed Kingsley in China, and then back in Nigeria, intending to follow his subsequent return to China to round out the project. Instead, COVID-19 broke out and left Wang waiting for his subject in Guangzhou. There, he met and began to film Evelyn.
“I tried to stay hopeful while still unsure about what fate is in store for Kingsley, Evelyn and the African community struggling to make a living in an environment that is becoming harsher and more hostile towards them,” he said.
“Ikotun” is currently seeking funding, co-producers and pre-sales, having secured $140,000 of its planned $345,000 budget. It is currently backed by Hong Kong-based Chinese Shadows and the director’s own Wil Productions, with France’s Ideale Audience on board as well as a production partner. Isabelle Glachant of Chinese Shadows is producing, having last collaborated with Wang on “Three Sisters” in 2012.
Wang is one of China’s most highly regarded independent filmmakers, and a top chronicler of some of the country’s most difficult truths. His latest film is 2018’s “Dead Souls,” a monumental eight-hour oral history of what happened in China’s “re-education” camps of the late 1950s that premiered at Cannes as a special screening. He visited the subject twice before in “Fengming, a Chinese Memoir,” which also debuted at Cannes, and “The Ditch,” which opened at Venice. His 2017 doc “Mrs. Fang,” the depiction of the final days in the life of a bedridden woman with Alzheimer’s disease, won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, where it premiered. Wang’s works have had retrospectives at institutions such as the Centre Pompidou and the Harvard Film Archive.