If the globalized labor market is as good for people as its advocates claim, then why must films about globalized workers be shot on the sly? Stephanie Black and Maryse Alberti were able to record their documentary H-2 Worker (1990) only by sneaking around the prisonlike barracks of the Florida cane fields.
When David Redmon asked too many questions of the bead factory workers he was profiling in Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), he got booted out of Fuzhou province. Now comes Micha Peled, who had to smuggle a video camera into China piece by piece and then reassemble it in Shaxi, home of cheap denim fabrication, so nobody in authority would know he was making China Blue.
Now enjoying its New York theatrical premiere after many festival screenings–it’s at Anthology Film Archives through February 1–China Blue shows what life is like for Jasmine and Orchid, teenagers who sew jeans day and night at the Lifeng factory in Shaxi. To insinuate himself into the Lifeng compound, Peled persuaded the owner that he was shooting an homage to China’s new entrepreneurs. (Peled kept up the pretense by assembling a promotional DVD for Lifeng, using the most cheerful of his footage.) Meanwhile, as the boss was being sweet-talked, associate producer and sound recordist Song Chen gained the confidence of Jasmine, Orchid and other factory girls by taking up residence in the Lifeng dormitory, where employees sleep twelve to a room (when they sleep at all).
The film that emerged from this chicanery turns out to be surprisingly fair-minded. Granted, it gives its heart and soul to the girls, who come by the millions from the countryside, bringing nothing with them but little zippered suitcases, middle-school educations and enough physical resilience to doze with their eyes open (a trick they manage by fixing plastic clothespins onto their eyelids to avoid being docked for sleeping on the job). But China Blue also extends some sympathy to Guo Xi Lam, the factory owner who opened Lifeng to the film crew. A man with the bluff, voluble manner of a cop (he was, in fact, the police chief of Shaxi) Lam boasts of having worked his way up in the world but nevertheless must scramble to meet his customers’ demands. Buyers from abroad–America, France, Britain–are forever insisting on lower unit costs and shorter delivery schedules. Lam knows of no way to satisfy these requirements except to squeeze his workers even harder.
Nobody in this world–not you, me, Thomas Friedman or the next girl to come off a Sichuan farm–would want to labor under the conditions you find at Lifeng. Overtime, which is obligatory, can stretch a shift to twenty hours. Break time is used for chores, such as laundry (which the girls wash by hand in plastic buckets). If a girl wants a bucket of hot water, she pays the factory. If she snatches an unauthorized break, she pays the factory. When she gets her meals from the commissary, she pays the factory, then carries the food back to her crowded dorm, since there’s no place to sit except on her bunk. Work must be done as quickly as possible, with scowling supervisors looking on; but payday is slow to come. Because Lam has cash-flow problems, he reckons up salaries only when he’s flush, or when the exhausted girls threaten to stop working just before an important order is due. Then, days or even weeks behind schedule, the bank notes are finally counted out–though not for the novice of the story, Jasmine. It’s customary to hold back a new girl’s first pay, to insure that she won’t leave the factory.