Eat Bitter


Reviewed by: Sergiu Inizian

Eat Bitter
"The close observation of Luan and the others reveals a multilayered image of struggle in an underdeveloped country." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

There's constant tension within the patient documentary observation of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. The camera closely follows faces marked by the threat of war, resource scarcity and a distressing sense of uncertainty. By setting their sights on one of the poorest countries in the world, directors Pascale Appora-Gnekindy and Ningyi Sun reveal a microcosm that speaks volumes about economic adversity and familial erosion.

Local man Thomas dives for sand, later used for raising buildings. He indirectly works for Luan, a Chinese migrant who runs several construction sites in the city. Their interaction is minimal but their activities encompass a larger picture of hard-handed labour and concerning conditions. Their families and colleagues add substantial nuance to a mosaic of contrasting cultures, which is captured skillfully by cinematographers Orphée Zaza and Emmanuel Bamoy.

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The overwhelming rusty colour of the sky, houses and unkept roads highlight the importance of sand in the community. Whether it's a lifeline for Thomas or an asset for Luan, the coppery resource concerns them, its supply directly affecting the wellbeing of their families. With the risk of driving a wedge between them and their loved ones, they take increasingly dangerous professional chances.

Thomas repeatedly falls short of his ambition to provide for his large, scattered family, often feeling powerless and confused. Luan comes from an established family unit but is lonely and disconnected from his wife and son. The directors capture the daily habits of the two workers and juxtapose them with an essential female counterpoint.

Pauline, Thomas' mother, projects strength and attempts to advise her son, regardless of his romantic situation. But their eyes rarely meet, her practical approach clashing with his spiritual nature and creating palpable tension within an already struggling household. The camera briefly transports the viewer to China, where it observes the quiet desperation of Yuzhen. Her delicate condition only worsens as she grapples with her husband’s absence and the constant feuding with their son.

Scratching beneath the surface of the somewhat stiff relationship between the Africans and the foreman, the filmmakers create a snapshot of modern globalisation. Luan manages to improve his status by working in an impoverished country and Thomas is trapped between a labour-intensive job and abject poverty. Connecting the two, pragmatic contractor Jeannet represents another perspective. His behaviour is compelling, advising his countryman to start his own sand-dealing business while securing more contracts with the Chinese man. He understands he might be part of a broken machine, but isn't concerned. As long as he’s behind them, the faulty cogs can run.

As careful as the filmmakers are with presenting the obstacles surrounding Thomas and Luan, the narrative feels thin around a noticeable moment. The lack of safety measures is apparent, as the viewer sees African workers climbing scaffolding in slippers. And yet, the scene of an on-site death is quickly dismissed through cursory editing, preventing any nuance or deeper emotional response from emerging.

The close observation of Luan and the others reveals a multilayered image of struggle in an underdeveloped country. As shiny new buildings cast a shadow of promise over the city its citizens face a grueling rat race. Thomas understands this and decries the uncaring nature of his government. And yet, his story is one of human resilience, which is shaken but not crushed by a system in which you ask for little and receive even less.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2023
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Observational documentary creates a snapshot of modern globalisation in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Director: Pascale Appora Gnekindy, Ningyi Sun

Writer: Mathieu Faure, Ningyi Sun, Pascale Appora Gnekindy

Year: 2023

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US, Canada, The Netherlands, Kenya, South Africa


DOC NYC 2023

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