When he was fifteen, the Gabonese Luc Bendza embarked on his life journey to China to follow the footsteps of his childhood movie stars, Bruce Lee and Wag Yu. Notwithstanding objections from his family, culture shock and economic hardships in China, and racism in his new country, Bendza joins a prestigious wushu academy (the kind of martial arts he wanted to master) and excels. But Bendza went beyond that, to become a professor at the school for more than 20 years; winning the first world championship of wushu; and met and worked with Jackie Chan and starred in kung fu fiilms (working with Bruce Lee’s producer). Bendza’s remarkable life is now the subject of a 72-minute documentary film, Samantha Biffot’s film “The African Who Wanted to Fly” (2015).
The documentary is shot in China, Gabon and Belgium with narrators speaking in their respective languages, mostly French and Mandarin (it is subtitled in English). Weaving back and forth in time and space, Biffot’s documentary opens with the current phase of Bendza when he accomplished “half of his dreams” and established his name. Slowly, the documentary delves into his upbringing to narrate—through his siblings and childhood friends—his obsession with Kung Fu.
Born into a family of teachers in middle-class family in Gabon, Bendza, like most of his contemporaries, where other means of entertainment was little, spent his afternoons practicing martial arts. He was obsessed with Bruce Lee and attempted to mimic his gestures and utterances at home with his family and friends outside. Unlike his friends who had other lives, Bendza lived an aloof style; focusing on his ultimate goal—to fly. Already named “master” among his contemporaries at his early age, he attracted a crowd of about 300 to 500 people from his neighborhood and other far places during his King Fu shows with his group.
Bendza’s life changed when he met a Chinese visitor who came to Gabon as interpreter to the Chinese medical team; Bendza befriends him and immediately impresses his guest. After noting his determination to go to China and study martial art, he agrees and helps him convince his family.
As the documentary film shows, China was not easy for Bendza. Being the only black person in the whole school, combined with the lack of cultural exposure of Chinese people at that time posed serious challenges. From young students in a desolate area running away from their seats after seeing him on stage to locals who would use derogatory words on the streets even when walking with his family to his in-laws who initially resisted to allow their daughter to marry a foreigner, Bendza has gone through many cultural trials and tribulations. It is against such continuous challenges and walking in a tight rope, balancing the two cultures and nations that he eventually came all the way to accomplish his dream. In tough times when he was pushed to the edge of quitting, it was the wushu discipline that helped him continue unabated.
Biffot’s excellent documentary is more than Bendza’s personal journey. Rather it seamlessly captures the popular cinema culture in many parts of Africa of the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Bendza’s aspiration has been widely shared by many young boys who dreamed of one day becoming Bruce Lee and other martial art masters. Biffot’s documentary projects how the dream of many young boys could have been had they trekked their journey.
Biffot masterfully overcomes the inevitable challenge of a documentary film–the long and intensive interviews. “The African Who Wanted to Fly” breaks the long narration through music, enticing scenery of nature and footages from films, and reenactments. The soundtrack of the film has also played a key role in making easier to follow the documentary. At times, serene and melancholic instrumental Chinese music and other times vibrant hits that also combines Gabonese beats, the music transitions from one scene to the next and weaves back and forth in time and space smoothly.
The underlying teachings of martial arts–living harmoniously with nature—is also manifested in documentary. The communal music performances in the parks across China is well documented and serves the purpose of breaking the monotony in the film.
The making of the documentary film and watching itself is an embodiment of the wushu philosophy as it is produced in line with art of living in peace with nature that withstands violence.
At bigger scale “The African Who Wanted to Fly” also helps soften the image of China in the continent where it is devolving into cheap products and market control. The popular perception of Chinese about Africa, as demonstrated in the film is, borrowed from the Western media and even becomes worse as it is copy of the original. It is mainly through such cultural exchanges and sports that perception of each other can be improved. Bendza is living testimony. Where others failed, sports and arts can bridge such gaps.
- This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 1-11 June. For screening details visit www.encounters.co.za.