Pascale Appora-Gnekindy and Ningyi Sun

Watched at the Festival Cinémas d’Afrique de Lausanne 2023

The Central African Republic is among the poorest and undeveloped countries in the world. While partially representative of the country, its capital Bangui is a city in the throes of real estate boom. And as in all excessively rapid expansions, many of the basic human rights are being ignored, not observed for the greater good. Autochthonous workers are used as cheap labour, forced into backbreaking jobs that endanger their physical and mental health to make Bangui a modern Capital. In the observational documentary Eat Bitter we are made participants of this development, following the stories of two workers from completely different but connected realms.

The first, Thomas, a native of Bangui, is a sand fisherman, a job that for me has something as surprising as it is mystical. A man who fishes with his hands a resource as ephemeral and yet as necessary as sand, who gives his life and strength to provide for his children. The second, Luan, is a Chinese immigrant working in Bangui as a construction manager. He too makes sacrifices, away from his family in a completely different universe for a better future. Both these very opposite persons are driven by a common motive, happiness. Thomas works for the happiness of his children, whom he looks after on his own, to be able to buy them one juice box at Christmas and with the dream of one day being able to buy a dugout and be truly happy. Luan also works to help his son and his wife whom he abandoned in China and to be finally happy again. Everyone wishes for his own happiness and seeks to help others in obtaining theirs. This is perhaps the beauty of this story. A story a little different from the usual ones of worker exploitation that we are used to hearing and seeing. Stories where Chinese immigrants use local workers as labour without really caring about them or their culture. Stories increasingly present in Africa where more than a million Chinese have arrived as colonisers to “help” the locals and gain from massive construction development.

Filmed over two long years through a complementary vision by two talented directors, Pascale Appora-Gnekindy and Ningyi Sun, Eat Bitter offer us a glimpse into the true essence of these people. As the documentary unfolds the main characters learn to work and live together, they progress as well as the bank that they are building, and in the end they finally all achieve a stable point in their lives. In the end, we leave the cinema with the hope that what we have watched is not just an isolated story, carefully chosen to impress and inspire us, but that it represents the reality. However, we soon must come to terms with the fact that the real world is more complex and multifaceted, and that stories with happy endings are unfortunately invariably mixed with stories of exploitation to which we are all too accustomed.

  • Mario Di Luca