To paraphrase the old Zen koan, if a documentary tackles a subject everyone knows, can it make a difference? One could argue, "Of course it can," blindly ascribing that potential to all docs; but what if people simply ignore the subject because it's just accepted as a part of life? You might do what director Micha X. Peled did with his latest film, China Blue (opening Friday at Anthology Film Archives), which puts three faces onto the 130 million Chinese factory workers who stitch the infamous “Made in China” brand on the majority of sneakers, shirts and jeans that Americans buy.
“It’s related to [my] previous film,” Peled said, invoking his 2000 release Store Wars: When Wal Mart Comes to Town during a recent interview with The Reeler. "In that film, there’s one small town in Virginia that’s trying to stop the largest corporation in the world from coming in. And that got me interested in the various aspects of Wal-Mart -- working for [the company]. And then I got interested in where the products -- the cheap goods that Wal-Mart sells -- come from and how they get made.”
Filmed over four years, China Blue focuses on the Lifeng factory in Shaxi, China, and three girls who work there: Jasmine, 16, who travels from the countryside in search of a better job (a thread cutter); Orchid, 19, a zipper-installer who travels to meet her boyfriend; and Li Ping, 14, a seamstress. For her work as a thread cutter, averaging a pair of jeans per half hour, Jasmine makes half a yuan, or six cents. Battling well-known brands like Levi’s -- who have strict contracts forbidding any audio or video recording in their plants -- and working without permits from the Chinese Film Bureau, Peled’s crew carried on illegally and was subject to constant police harassment (and even arrest, at one point) while shooting outside the factory.
“We got turned down by many factories that did not want to take the risk and let us film,” Peled said. “That was the most challenging part of this film, really -- to get the access. We met a man who was very proud of his factory; it was relatively new, only two or three years old. It really was better most of them. And we visited factories that had 20, 30 people to the room in the dormitories and toilets for the entire floor down the hall.”
After losing touch with his original subject during China's 2002 SARS outbreak, Peled refocused on the three girls; within a few days of filming, he had determined Jasmine -- whose diary frames parts of her story as she writes of a heroic martial arts princess and wonders if she and her cohorts will have a break from their 18-hour overtime -- was the subject to whom viewers were most likely to relate. “Suddenly it’s no longer faceless masses of millions," he said. "It’s one girl -- Jasmine. But you like her, and you feel like she could be your next door neighbor. She has imagination, she writes short stories, she has dreams, she misses her mom, and suddenly it’s not acceptable anymore. Now people say, 'Give me an alternative; we don’t want buy clothes that make us feel ashamed.' ”
Peled himself is not fluent in Chinese, relying on his associate producer Song Chen to communicate with the girls and bond with them during a brief stay in the dormitories. “I try to observe body language," he said. "Usually, the way I make films, everybody has their styles. Mine is a bit more of an interventionist side as opposed to someone like Frederick Wiseman, who is truly almost like a fly on the wall and really just wants to capture things as they fall.”
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Canadian delegates are invited to tour Lifeng. As they’re paraded through the facility, one casually remarks how convenient the dormitories are to their residents' workplace. These same dorms are kept closeby due to no real breaks being given to the workers, and while they are cramped, they are nowhere near the squalid nightmares of a hundred people that other less sanitary factories use. Even Peled acknowledged that the Lifeng factory is considered one of the better factories in terms of its workers' treatment and living conditions, but that's not saying much: These factories are still in violation of international law, many of which Peled said the Chinese officials and other delegates openly ignore as they announce their arrival months ahead of time so owners may prepare the workers.
"Those guys are supposed to look for problems," Peled said. "They’re supposed to evaluate the factory and [make sure] it complies with the code of conduct that the retailer has, and even they usually play some kind of charade -- they don’t want to find some kind of problem. They notify the factory long in advance, so that the factory can be really prepared. And on top of that, unless you bother to take the time to educate yourself a little bit about what’s going on over there, you have no idea. That statement is how people come out of those factories, and (it) was important to contrast that with what we really see.”
Even after playing at 37 festivals (and being banned in China after the Hong Kong Film Festival), the biggest question that Peled normally fields is the hardest to answer: What can be done about this type of labor?
“If you’re thinking about it in terms of, 'Oh, how do we stop globalization?’ Then yeah, it’s overwhelming and you kind of want to crawl under a rock," he said. "Not everybody cares about it, but if you only get 20 percent of the American consumers saying we’re willing to pay a couple bucks more just to make sure workers aren’t being mistreated with our credit card power, that’s a huge part of the market. And I think one of those major brands will jump into it saying, 'Hey, I think this will be the next trendy thing.' ”
But by far the most ironic part comes at the end, as factory owner Mr. Lam is told by a manager that their first order from Wal-Mart has come in.
“Oh, yes," Peled said. "Poetic justice, of course.”
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