Tribeca 2024 Review: Xinyan Yu & Max Duncan’s Fascinating “Made in Ethiopia” Details the Domino Effect of Economic Development

“Now it’s become a tourist hotspot. We’re considering selling tickets,” laughs Motto, the deputy director for Eastern Industry Park in Dukem, where no profit stream is overlooked in Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu’s captivating doc “Made in Ethiopia,” after China has made a considerable investment in the African nation where over a hundred companies have come to inhabit a large parcel of land to take advantage of the slow economic development afoot in a region seeking stability after being beset by civil war. A massive labor pool is available when nearly half the country is under 18 and the Ethiopian government is welcoming to any employer offering paid work to help grow the local economy. It is hardly an equitable arrangement when workers can expect to make around $50 a month on production lines for shoes and pants, but the potential boon to infrastructure — beyond jobs, Chinese companies have pitched in for roads, dams and a light rail system to better meet their own needs — is too tantalizing for anyone to ignore and with 20,000 jobs delivered by Eastern Industry Park, Motto is busying herself on selling Ethiopian authorities on developing more land for phase two, which seems like a fait accompli even without the promise of 30,000 more open positions.

Inevitably, some comparisons will be made with “American Factory,” Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar’s Oscar-winning doc fueled by the culture clash of a Chinese company attempting to revive an American manufacturing plant with the attitudes they held from back home as things inside the factory could go a bit smoother to go by the example of Beti, a young woman drawn to Dukem to sew jeans after leaving her family to assert her independence. But “Made in Ethiopia” steps out of that exceptionally large shadow rather quickly when it expands to track the domino effect of Ethiopia handing over so much power to foreign private interests. You can understand why they’ve been won over by the boundless energy and enthusiasm of Eastern Industry Park leaders such as Motto, who hopes to set an example for others with her ruthless productivity, and can be seen schmoozing with Dutch businessmen and local government officials to make sure there’s no speed bumps on the way to an even bigger footprint for her bosses back home. Yet Duncan and Yu also give plenty of their attention to Wakinesh, who lives just outside of Eastern Industry Park and whose farmland has been reassigned to be part of Phase Two, with the government promising to compensate their land with a combination of new land and money, only the latter part of which has come through.

Yu and Duncan resist putting an exclamation point on it, but an already gripping scenario becomes all the more compelling in “Made in Ethiopia” when the film primarily accompanies women, who would seem to have more at stake than the men in an increasingly industrialized country. While Beti hopes to be self-sufficient and has little interest in a husband, yet unable to build any savings with her paltry salary that’s nonetheless seen as a sign of progress, Wakinesh is saddled with six kids that she believes she’d be able to tend to better in an urban environment where she didn’t have to burn cow dung for fire and her husband’s insistence on maintaining a hold on the land starts to look more like keeping his power in the relationship than being what’s best for the both of them.

The filmmakers handle all the subject’s inherent socioeconomic complexities quite elegantly, needing nothing more than to show the manufacturing of face masks to signal the start of COVID, one calamity of many that threaten to upend Motto’s best laid plans, and boasts one of the most striking drone shots of recent memory when Dukem can be seen from above and the concrete block full of factories looms large over the rest of the region. Potentially ominous or promising depending on how you look at it, the scene is indicative of “Made in Ethiopia” as a whole when it so richly captures an entire landscape of a nation in flux.

“Made in Ethiopia” will screen again at Tribeca Festival at AMC 19th St. East 6 on June 9th at 3:30 pm and June 14th at 5:45 pm.

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