Young factory workers pin their eyes open to avoid sleep.
A film by Micha X. Peled
Produced and Directed by Micha Peled and Song Chen
Beyond anything else, China Blue is glaring evidence of the exploitation that goes on in the sweatshops of China, and as such it is worthy film. What makes “China Blue” exceptional is the extreme serendipity that allowed it to be made at all. In a miracle of connivance, director Micha Peled was able to convince factory owner Guo Xi Lam, a blue jean manufacturer in southern China, that he was making a documentary about entrepreneurial successes of China’s new open-door economic policy. Swayed by pride and gullibility, Lam gave Peled full access to the factory and its workers. Once inside, Peled was able to film blatant violations of both Chinese and international labor laws, as well as expose the substandard living conditions of the workers.
It’s one thing to read about injustice and mistreatment; it’s another thing to watch it happening right in front of you. That’s what China Blue does; it shows the workers pulling 17-hour shifts, getting penalized for putting their heads down while on the job, and having to use the toilets as sink drains for washing up in their dormitories. The film personalizes such adversity even further by concentrating on a few of the workers, notably a 17-year-old girl named Jasmine, whom they follow from her first days at the factory, to the moment she finally receives her first paycheck nearly five months later.
Jasmine is smart and articulate, and she easily wins our hearts. A peasant girl from rural China, she is determined to work hard to make money for her family, and is eager to start her new job as a threader at Lam’s factory. But factory life quickly wears her down, and we see her youthful excitement gradually turn into bleary-eyed resignation. When Jasmine realizes she won’t be able to afford to go home for the New Year holiday, her homesickness comes up in a wave of feeling. She’s only 17, after all, and she misses her mother. We find out later that new workers are kept from returning home for fear that they won’t come back to work.
China Blue starts out with such a strong linear narrative to Jasmine’s story, complete with overlaid music in just the right places, that the film at first seems staged. Fortunately, the extreme conditions of life in the factory and a series of unforeseen events seem to propel the filmmakers away from this kind of fake dramatization, and the story takes on a life of its own, appearing to unfold before our very eyes.
It helps that Jasmine, as well as the other young women we get to know, is so natural and open in front of the camera. This must be at least in part due to the sympathetic presence of Song Chen, the Taiwanese co-producer who also recorded the interviews with the girls. Chen was the film’s main spokesperson in China, and the main infiltrator into the factory. She lived with the workers in the women’s dormitory, and gained the girls’ confidence. How else could the filmmakers have captured such intimate moments with the girls? We hear them giggle and give each other advice; we watch as they look out for each other; we hear their confessions, complaints, fears, wishes and dreams.
It would be enough if China Blue simply worked as an exposé of the harsh lives these young girls live, but director Peled is too much of a leftwing activist to leave it at that. He has bigger fish to fry, namely the multinational retailers who set the agenda, the ones who pressure men like Lam (who comes off here less as a villain than an arriviste) to sell their blue jeans at ridiculously low prices. In one negotiating meeting that Peled miraculously managed to film, Lam is seen kowtowing to a dissatisfied customer from Newcastle, England, offering a discount that he knows will stretch his workers’ abilities. There’s another scene in which a group of Americans visit the factory, and after a perfunctory inspection, express their approval using just the kind of lip service that reeks of managerial insincerity. It’s like the story about the elephant in the room that nobody will acknowledge, which leads to a consensus that the elephant isn’t there.
This footage of the role the global market plays is subtle, but it’s enough for us to recognize the elephant ourselves. Peled is wise not to get brittle in his accusations. No one wants a sermon, and Peled’s film is devoid of the kind of proselytizing that leads to caricatures. On the contrary, the scene of the Americans, or even the Hindi salesman from Newcastle, has more impact because of our ability to recognize these people as one of us. It’s business, after all, and they are in the service of the big corporations just like everybody else.
And who are these big corporations? Well, there’s the one in England, one has a huge account with the French government—and of course there’s WalMart. The last scene of China Blue has Lam showing a contract for a huge shipment of jeans to the American giant.
China Blue was made in 2005, and after a successful festival run, is enjoying a very limited theatrical release. It’s true home, however, is television, where it might get enough viewers to make a difference. It will be aired this year on PBS stations around the country. Globalization is here to stay, and it presents us with yet another set of problems that we must address. China Blue does not offer solutions, but it might help get us to stop ignoring the problems. It is the little elephant that roared.