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The Mulan of Africa
A Beninese actress pursues her film dream in China to build bridges between the two cultures
By Li Xiaoyu | VOL. 16 July 2024 ·2024-07-04

Rawdoth Alazi Soumaila at the China-Benin Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum in Beijing on 2 April 2022 (COURTESY)

Rawdoth Alazi Soumaila, a young actress and model from Benin, has recently been cast in a leading role on the Chinese small screen. Formed Police Unit, a recent film by Hong Kong director Lee Tat-Chiu, showcases her artistic talent.  

Adopting the Chinese name of Mulan, Soumaila wants to stand out and embody a heroic figure, following in the footsteps of the legendary Chinese warrior admired for her bravery and humility for over 1,500 years. By exploring the world of the seventh art, she also hopes to act as a cultural bridge between Africa and China. 

A moving performance 

The film tells the story of an African witness, played by Soumaila, who survives an attack by an armed group in her home village. She is protected by Chinese police officers on a peacekeeping mission in a West African country. Despite the dangers, they escort the witness to court. Unfortunately, one of the Chinese policemen is captured and tortured by the armed group, who demand that the witness be handed over. Faced with this challenging situation, the witness appeals in a quiet voice: “Let’s return and save him! You have risked your lives, now it is our turn to protect you!” Soumaila’s emotionally charged performance had a profound impact on the audience. 

To fully familiarise herself with the character she was playing, Soumaila conducted extensive research into peacekeeping missions and created a fictional world by immersing herself in a country affected by conflict. Even in her dreams, she would converse with her character and gain a comprehensive understanding of the role.  

This approach enabled her to excel on the set, where, despite her modest stature, she demonstrated remarkable determination and courage. She is often moved to tears, embodying the voices of those who endured the war without being able to express their pain. Aware of the immense loss they have suffered, she expresses her gratitude to China for sending peacekeepers to conflict zones on the African continent, and calls for the preservation of peace and security in the world. 

Her opinion is shared by Christiane Bokpe Adovelande, wife of the Beninese ambassador to China. After watching the film, she applauded the bravery and sense of responsibility shown by the Chinese police in maintaining world peace. She also praised Soumaila’s positive role in strengthening the bonds of friendship and cooperation between Africa and China by sharing her love of Chinese culture with a wider audience. 

Rawdoth Alazi Soumaila plays the role of an African witness in the film Formed Police Unit(COURTESY)

Soumaila’s story in China began in September 2013 with a year of Chinese language study at Chongqing Jiaotong University, thanks to a scholarship offered by the Confucius Institute at Abomey Calavi University in Benin. She then went on to study for a bachelor’s degree in international trade at Chongqing Technology and Business University. 

Despite her focus on other subjects, Soumaila’s childhood passion for the arts was rekindled during her studies in China. “My mother told me that from the age of three or four, I wanted to be a TV star. For me, it was a foregone conclusion that I would enter the world of cinema,” recalled Soumaila. 

Furthermore, the strengthening of cultural exchanges is seen as essential to bringing the African and Chinese people closer together. “The friendship between China and Africa was cultivated by the leaders of the previous generation and has been passed down to the present day. It is up to our generation to continue to nurture this friendship,” Soumaila told ChinAfrica. In her view, cinema is an effective way of immortalising this friendly relationship in the digital age, where young people are passionate about videos. 

To gain the necessary skills to succeed in the film industry, she undertook film studies and took private lessons with a drama teacher. Her experience in modelling, acquired since high school, has given her a good sense of camera. Regular exchanges with filmmakers such as Jackie Chan and certain members of his film crew have enabled her to become more familiar with this profession.  

Despite facing numerous difficulties, she successfully completed the highly competitive entrance exam for the Beijing Film Academy. This summer, she became the first African to obtain a master’s degree in performing arts at the school. Additionally, a television series, Happiness Juncao, in which Soumaila participated, is scheduled for broadcast in the second half of this year. Her future prospects appear promising. 

Rawdoth Alazi Soumaila (second from left) at the premiere of the film Formed Police Unit in Beijing on 29 April (COURTESY) 

A producer’s vision 

Soumaila does not view her degree in international business as a hindrance to her acting career, but rather as a valuable asset, enhancing her understanding of film production. “It enables me to contribute to co-production between China and Africa, as I will be able to attract investment for films,” she stated. 

When she first met the production team for the film Formed Police Unit, her skills in international trade, her fluency in Chinese and her knowledge of Africa and China made her a preferred choice for her character. The producer saw her as a valuable collaborator, rather than simply an actress. 

Although unsure of the future opportunities this role might bring, she is proactive in her career, considering producing and writing films. She is keen to explore collaboration between China and Africa throughout her career. “Sino-African relations are growing stronger, offering the film industry an opportunity to facilitate cultural diplomacy between the two sides,” she said. 

Last April, she returned to her country in the company of two Chinese producers. They are currently working with the Benin Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts on a film co-production. The film will be shot in Benin, allowing Chinese audiences to gain insight into African culture, trade and daily life.  

Speaking with the Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts, she expressed pride in her work in her country as well as her involvement in Sino-African cooperation. She intends to maintain this level of commitment inspired by the spirit of Mulan.  

Rawdoth Alazi Soumaila with Jackie Chan at the Jackie Chan International Action Film Week in Datong, Shanxi Province, in 2018 (COURTESY) 


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