Consumers, misguided or not, occasionally band together behind a
moral concept and manage to produce large-scale industrial change.
The most obvious day-to-day examples of the things-we-buy-to-give-
ourselves-a-pat-on-the-back are hybrid cars, dolphin-safe tuna,
organic and non-GMO foods and free-range animal products. Recently
the list has expanded to include sweatshop-free retailer American
Apparel, but so far they have remained the only name brand clothing
manufacturer to capitalize on this niche "conscience" market.
Most viewers of the latest documentary from Micha X. Peled
(Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town
), China Blue
, will doubtless feel this gap when looking askance at their own
"made in China" wardrobe post-screening, wondering what they can do
about a practice that comes as no surprise to anyone, yet somehow
makes most of us feel helpless.
follows 15-year-old Jasmine who, like many other
female middle school graduates from the Chinese countryside, works as
a migrant worker in a blue jeans factory in urban Shaxi ("China's
Famous Clothing Town"). From Jasmine's initial entry through the live-
in factory gates which you can almost hear clang ominously behind
her, Peled follows in detail her first months alongside her new young
companions. While the opening sequences are reconstructed using
Jasmine's journal entries, much of the rest is an intimate
clandestine portrait of the factory itself; its relationship to its
western buyers, its entrepreneurial owner and manager Mr. Lam, and
the day-to-day lives of its trapped, struggling young workers. The
labor abuses are a given, but what remains remarkable is that an
imposingly-sized western outsider like Peled, who does not speak
Chinese, managed to capture so well the lively spontaneity of a young
girl's dorm. To the film's merit it emerges as a charming character
study heavily laced with strong damnations rather than grating with
the activist agitprop stylings that so often cloud well-meaning tales
opens on January 19 at the Roxie Film Center
in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center
in Mill Valley,
followed by screenings in New York and Seattle
How much time did you spend in China yourself over the three year
period of the film?
I went there six times, so maybe altogether five months.
Did you hire Chinese crew members while you were there?
Most of the film we did ourselves. I shot maybe 85 percent of it. My
associate producer Song Chen did sound. The rest was shot with Chinese cameramen. But we did not have
good luck with them. Either they were not up to par, or difficult to
work with. A couple of times they were chased away by the police.
This was an illegal project so the police would come and demand to
see the papers, a permit to shoot, and those guys would run away
because they would lose their jobs.
So how did you communicate with the crew and also your subjects?
Was it mostly through Song Chen?
So you were actually in the dormitories yourself, personally, with
How was that as an experience, to try and get spontaneity out of
the girls, as such a notable outsider who didn't speak the language?
It took a lot of time before they could relax a little bit because
they had never spoken to a westerner before in their lives. Not to
mention that I was huge compared to them. And I did not share a
language with them, so it took a while. But their daily life is so
hectic and they're tired a lot of the time. They're kind of eating on
the run and all of that and after a while they just - I don't want to
say forgot about us, but they didn't pay too much attention because
they just had very little time to take care of what they really
needed to do. Song Chen spent a lot of time with them socializing and
taking them out for meals, a couple of times even, late at night when
they were so bummed out that they still had so much work to do. She
would sit with them and help them out a little bit, so she built more
of a personal relationship with them.
Was it hard for you as a director shooting in another language to
get a sense of how the film was going? Or what direction or shape it
I did have some surprises when we edited the footage, but I found it
interesting to do a lot of the shooting based on body language rather
than understanding the words. There were times when I looked at the
transcript when I thought, Oh, I wish I had at that moment panned to
the listener or visa versa, but I had no idea often when they were
talking what the topic was.
But as far as getting a concept of where the film was going,
structure and so forth, I had a certain idea before I started and I
think it was a good one because it survived all the unexpected things
that happened. I'm just talking about the broad strokes. For example,
my idea from the beginning was that the main character is a girl that
has just arrived [at the factory]. We meet her on the first day when
she's clueless, she's na´ve, she's excited, and let's see what
happens to her. A film where the main character doesn't go through
some sort of transformation is not all that interesting usually, so
there was a bigger chance that something would happen to a girl that
had just arrived than someone who had been there for two or three
years. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a factory owner or a
manager or somebody in a high authority position to be a character in
the film so I could understand things from their point of view.
Globalization is like a food chain. They get squeezed by the people
who are coming from above who for the factory managers are the
western buyers, so I wanted to get that in.
In the beginning, I had Song Chen go and live with the workers in the
dorms for over a week to get to know many of them and to look for
sort of secondary characters that we might want to have. My one
assignment to her was to find me a good love story. I like to cast
against character, against expectations, and I knew this would be a
film with a lot of drudgery and misery, but you can't watch that for
an hour and a half. These are all young people no matter how much
they live under slavery conditions. Surely there will be something
going on, and what's a good love story? One that has some obstacles.
So when she ran into a girl called Orchid who told her, "I haven't
been home for two years and my parents haven't met my boyfriend, but
they don't approve because his family still doesn't have a second
story to their house and they think their daughter is so pretty and
smart and hard working - why isn't she hooking up with a boy from one
of the better established families in town? - but I have a plan: Next
new year I'm going to go home and bring him along and introduce him
and I'm sure he'll make a good impression." That to me was like a
little goldmine because we have not only got a good love story, but
we now had a reason to go back to the village, which I was interested
in also from a journalistic point of view. I wanted to see why all
these young people are putting up with these terrible work
conditions. Why do they have to leave? Why are they so desperate? So
when we get to the village and we see for example Orchid's father
carrying the water in buckets and you see that they don't even have
running water, we begin to understand things a little bit more.