AFRICAN RAILWAY

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Date: January 2010
Location: Tanzania + Zambia
Distributor: BBC 4 UK (28 April 2010) – 52 min.
Credits: directed and filmed by Sean Langan
2nd cameraman – Claudio von Planta
Production Company – Renegade Pictures
 
AFRICAN RAILWAY is a leisurely, wryly amusing documentary in which award-winning Sean Langan rides the ramshackle rails of the vast Tazara Express, Africa’s so-called freedom railway linking Zambia’s copper belt to Tanzania and, eventually, and significantly, to China.



Sean Langan, who specialises in reports from some of the most dangerous parts of the world, suffered in 2008 a terrifying three-month kidnap ordeal at the hands of Afghan Talebans. Unsurprisingly, his first film since his release found him on much safer ground. In this moving and often funny African documentary I supported Sean as a 2nd cameraman.
 
The entire TAZARA network was once a symbol of Africa’s post-independence hopes of prosperity but now it’s on the brink of collapse. Lack of money means lack of fuel and parts, leading to excruciatingly lengthy delays, derailments and breakdowns. The staff are overworked and underpaid, and the whole system is overseen, after a fashion, from a rudimentary control office without direct contact with drivers – instead they have to call stations to ask whether they’ve seen any trains – and with timetables drawn by hand according to an unreliable clock. (And people complain about the trains in this country.)
 
The finger of blame points towards the gross mismanagement and self-interest of their Chinese paymasters, who built and funded the railway shortly after independence (a portrait of Chairman Mao still hangs in Tazara’s virtually deserted headquarters). Supposedly their biggest investment in Africa, Tazara reportedly went bankrupt in 2008. Given this vast investment, it was sadly no surprise when Langan revealed that China eventually placed Tazara in the sole care of a Chinese company. Africa’s freedom railway is now anything but.
 
With a camera strapped to his shoulder, Langan travelled alone through spectacular scenery, endless delays, and surprisingly jolly encounters with Tazara staff members, most of whom seemed to regard their predicament with varying degrees of resigned amusement. Or perhaps they were simply tickled by the genial tenacity of this displaced nosey-parker from the BBC. Langan charmed his way into various offices, carriages, homes and warehouses – full of rusting engines to provide a disbelieving overview of a crumbling edifice in the heart of paradise.
 
For someone used to rubbing shoulders with terrorists, he must have been relieved that his biggest difficulty this time was – in scenes redolent of Nick Broomfield – gaining an audience with Tazara’s conveniently indisposed Chinese bosses. Despite their reticence to appear on camera, Langan hardly needed any more proof that China is exploiting Africa’s natural resources, just as foreign investors have done since time immemorial. A bittersweet tragedy.

 

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