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.
You might think Lam would have wanted to conceal these details; but he granted the crew such freedom to roam that Peled even got to stage some scenes, right on the factory floor. The use of these re-enactments (recognizable by their cross-cutting) doesn’t strike me as significant in itself, since documentarians have been patching semifictional moments into their films ever since Flaherty made Nanook of the North. The stagings are noteworthy, rather, for the added evidence they provide of Lam’s booming self-confidence. Whether speaking before Peled’s camera or letting others do so, he behaves like a man whose actions are all praiseworthy; and in Shaxi, he might well have believed so. As a commentator from a Chinese labor institute explains in China Blue, Lam treats his workers better than most factory owners do.
Peled didn’t need to include this bit of exculpatory testimony, but he used it anyway, doing justice to the man who’d made his film possible. No matter. Over the course of China Blue‘s much-interrupted production, Peled and his crew were still subjected to arrest and interrogation. The police confiscated much of their footage, and they intimidated one of the original interview subjects so thoroughly that she refused to go on with the film. What’s strange about this bullying, in Peled’s account, is that Lam had nothing to do with it. Apart from an incident in which the police stopped Peled from filming a strike–an intervention you can understand, if not justify–he ran into trouble only for his actions far away from Shaxi’s factories. His crew was busted twice for filming scenes of rural life in the native villages of workers.
Well, village cops often have time on their hands. But they also have a sense of their bosses’ sensitivities and so must have felt that foreigners are not welcome to film the premodern areas of China, which both feed the modern, globalized cities and are fed by them. Most of the girls in China Blue manage to send money back to the villages. That’s why they’re in the factory in the first place: not to pursue opportunities for themselves (since the opportunities are scant), not to enjoy the excitement of city life (since they rarely go into the city), but to help support their rural families. I think the guardians of China’s public image (and the apologists for globalization) must find it shameful that these city workers remain tied to the countryside, even at a distance of hundreds of miles. The fatigue, the boredom, the wretched pay, the pinched living conditions, all could be excused if the workers had a little money left over each month to invest in their futures. Then they’d be poster girls for a new urban middle class. But on the evidence of China Blue, any surplus they have goes back to the land of hand plows and poultry yards.
For this reason, the worst scandal exposed in China Blue might not be the underpayment of the factory girls, relative to the profits made by Western jeans importers. The dirtiest secret might not be the treatment of these workers, or even the endlessness of the supply of young women. (Where do they go, you wonder, after they’ve turned 21?) The fact that had to be suppressed, evidently, was simply the humanity of Jasmine and Orchid, who persist in being more than mere economic pass-throughs.
Orchid teaches the other girls in the dormitory how to dance, and splurges on hot water to shampoo her hair, and goes out at midnight to see a boyfriend she intends to marry. Jasmine laughs at the size of the jeans she makes (who on earth has a waist that big?) and sits up late keeping a diary, excerpts of which help to structure China Blue. Jasmine also likes to write stories that concern someone much like herself: a poor girl who left her village to study kung fu, and who will return soon with magical powers to save her entire family.
If the global labor market were as good as its advocates claim, Jasmine wouldn’t need to acquire magical powers. She could use the ones she’s already got.
Screening schedule: While China Blue is having its New York run, Anthology Film Archives will surround it with the equivalent of a small but strange documentary festival featuring nonfiction films by Lynne Sachs and Kazuo Hara.
The Sachs series, titled “I Am Not a War Photographer,” runs January 26-28 and focuses on her meditative, essayistic films about armed conflict: in Israel and Palestine, in the former Yugoslavia and in Vietnam. Among the works to be shown are States of Unbelonging (made in collaboration with Nir Zats), an uneasy exchange of video-letters about murder, mourning and filmmaking on the edge of the West Bank; Which Way Is East (made in collaboration with Dana Sachs), an expressively beautiful diary of a trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi; and Investigation of a Flame, a montage of interviews, archival footage and symbolic imagery that gives density and weight to contemporary recollections of 1968 and the Catonsville Nine protest, in which antiwar activists seized and burned Selective Service records.
Also on the Anthology schedule, from January 31 through February 4: a retrospective of the few but outrageous documentaries of Kazuo Hara. Not to be missed: The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987), Hara’s portrait of World War II veteran Kenzo Okuzaki, who dedicated himself to disrupting as many public occasions as possible with his shouted denunciations of imperial tradition, military honor and official Japanese history. His reason for being so upset? Okuzaki said his fellow soldiers had been killed and eaten by their officers. Shohei Imamura helped produce the film. As Larry Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art once remarked, you could almost believe Imamura had made it up.
Short take: Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, based on one of those newspaper articles that lay open an abyss of criminal idiocy, Alpha Dog is the almost true story of a small bunch of Southern California drug dealers and the teenage boy they took hostage against repayment of a debt. The milieu was moneyed and white; the gangsta style, strictly wannabe; the ultimate violence, all too real. Cassavetes frames this tale with sadly nostalgic home videos of the characters as small boys, and with faux-documentary interviews with some of their parents (played by Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone). The theme, then, is supposed to be one of innocence lost and youth neglected or misled. The method, though, is full-tilt, careening Act-o-Rama. Ben Foster, as the raging debtor, deploys a technique that’s as vivid as his body art. Emile Hirsch, as the fatally obtuse creditor, swaggers and poses with all the bravado of a guy who secretly worries his jeans might fall down. Like everyone in the large cast of scenery chewers, they’re memorable. But the heart of the film–true to the ostensible theme–belongs to Anton Yelchin as the abducted kid and Justin Timberlake as his reluctant baby sitter. These two convey a harmlessness that makes the film’s climax credible, and as awful as it should be. “You know I would never hurt you,” a weepy Timberlake tells his captive–and you see that, on some level, this dimwit believes he’s telling the truth.