Berlinale 2020 review: Days of Cannibalism (Teboho Edkins)

Anyone who’s been to Africa lately will have noticed the increasing Chinese influence. Everywhere you look it seems like China is building roads and other infrastructure. These large-scale investments tip the geo-political balance, but on a smaller scale Chinese migrants and entrepreneurs are rapidly spreading through the continent. Teboho Edkins’ documentary Days of Cannibalism focuses on an emerging China-Africa relationship in rural Lesotho, a relationship that is strained because of strong cultural differences, leading to two communities living almost completely past each other. And at the center of it all: the cow.

Cows have an important and somewhat mystical role in Basotho culture (the ethnic group living in Lesotho that is shown in the film). Basotho people refer to them as ‘gods with wet noses’. They function as property, but not in the way we in the West, or indeed in Chinese culture, regard property. Livestock and cash are not freely convertible in Lesotho but used to ‘store’ wealth. You can buy cows, but not sell them. They are a reserve asset, a retirement fund of sorts, and give the owner of a lot of cattle respect in the community. In a sense, an owner’s animals belong to the entire community: as the community takes care of the animals, they can also use them for their own work of, say, ploughing the fields.

This is in contrast with the way the Chinese regard livestock as property. They will freely trade animals back and forth, and Days of Cannibalism shows that this can cause friction. On several occasions these differences in regard to the animals are highlighted subtly, without any direct conflict. In one scene two cattle thieves, both Basotho, are judged for their crime which is regarded as a severe one in this culture. The prosecutor remarks that they sold some of the cows to a Chinese businessman who already slaughtered them, a subtle reminder of cultural differences. These Chinese investments in cows form the central culture clash around which Edkins’ documentary revolves. Such conflicts cause a rise in social tensions. The Basotho feel resentful that the Chinese are financially successful and suspect that they are cheating and abusing them. The Chinese fear the Basotho and battle loneliness and feeling homesick.

Even if Days of Cannibalism employs a mostly observational style, Edkins often frames his shots to bring narrative into the structure and actually does this so well that when the film switches to CCTV footage of a robbery of a Chinese-owned store (a shot that includes Edkins himself, amazingly) it jars the viewer into a realization that this is not a dramatized story and that these tensions affect real people. What Edkins shows in his documentary are the effects of globalization but not through a Western lens, which is how we normally regard this phenomenon. It illustrates an entirely materialistic encounter between two previously separate cultures, an encounter that does not involve ‘the West’, but it may teach the West something about globalization and its cannibalistic tendencies, with the title a metaphor for one group of people feeding economically on another. Days of Cannibalism is not a film with any commercial prospects simply because of its subject matter, but it is a uniquely placed yet universal story of cultural friction and acceptance that is reflected in Western society today.

Photo copyright: KinoElektron