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Empire of Dust - China in Africa

The vast wilderness of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a world away from the urban centers of China. Yet it is there that greater numbers of Chinese engineers are doing business. In the documentary Empire of Dust, featured in the “Panorama” section of this year’s International Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), director Bram Van Paesschen explores the fraught relationship between the Congolese and the Chinese, as shown through their efforts to build a road between two major cities in the DRC.

In 2007, China and Congo signed a massive resources-for-infrastructure deal with projected revenues of $40-$120 billion. China endeavors to take on a wide range of development projects (including roads, hospitals, schools and airports) to be paid for by Congo’s immense copper and cobalt reserves. Though a promising deal for the Congolese– the majority of whom live on less than $1.25 a day– the deal’s lack of transparency has made it the subject of scrutiny for human rights organizations. Empire of Dust examines the human aspect of this exchange.

Director Bram Van Paesschen zeroes in on two employees of the China Railway Engineering Company (CREC): Lao Yang, the company’s Head of Logistics; and Eddy, his Congolese translator. The two visit construction sites around the country, overseeing a project marred by cultural misunderstandings. To make matters more interesting, Van Paesschen hails from Belgium, who under King Leopold II subjected Congo to one of the most brutal colonizations in history. Empire of Dust is a day-by-day account of globalization at work, wryly observed with humorous interstitials from a Congolese radio DJ invented by Van Paesschen himself.

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