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Articles

Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth
By Hannah Eaves
January 19, 2007 - 9:46 AM PST


"I did have some surprises when we edited the footage..."

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.

China Blue 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 of sorrow.

China Blue 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?

Yes.

So you were actually in the dormitories yourself, personally, with your subjects?

Yes.

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 was taking?

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.

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"I did have some surprises when we edited the footage..."
"People immediately feel connected to this problem..."

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Hannah Eaves
Hannah Eaves Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker

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January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller

January 19, 2007. Charles Mudede: Zoo Story by Andy Spletzer

January 19, 2007. Mark Becker: Merging the Personal and the Political by Sara Schieron

January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves

January 16, 2007. Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth by Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon

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