By James Van Maanen
I first saw Mardi Gras: Made in China six months ago via the Ironweed Film Club, but the current all-out DVD release comes from young documentary filmmaker David Redmon and his partner Ashley Sabin's new distribution arm, Carnivalesque Films - which will, over the next few months, release this film plus several from other filmmakers. In our current climate of disappearing distribution channels, Carnivalesque Films may be a small, positive blip on the film radar - but small is better than not at all.
Watching the film, I remember thinking, "Wow, the filmmaker is pretty naïve!" even though I thoroughly enjoyed his attempt to get the Mardi Gras revelers on New Orleans' Bourbon Street to consider, even for a moment, where the famous beads they were tossing or catching actually came from. (Almost nobody knew. Or cared.) Then Redmon took us to China, where we watched the beads being manufactured by young female workers in a facility that some might see as a sweat shop, others as a paean to China's exciting new east-west, left-right, communist capitalism.
Although he is barely seen in his documentary, Redmon is heard often enough, and his youthful, enthusiastic voice adds to the odd combination of inexperience and keen intelligence that this new filmmaker appears to possess. He doesn't push, refuses to put words into the mouths of his interviewees and, although he certainly has an agenda, it seems more geared to explaining and understanding than to screaming and finger-pointing.
We met with the filmmaker last week in New York City at a little Cuban fast food spot almost directly across from the new New York Times building. (Though nobody was scaling it that day, one look at the unusual edifice and you can fully understand why climbers want to rise to this challenge.) Redmon's open, youthful face did nothing to belie his enthusiasm, friendliness and genuine interest in all things filmic, economic and cultural.
Have you followed up with any of the people that you filmed in Mardi Gras: Made in China?
Well, yes and no. About two years after the completion of the film, I followed up on two of the workers in the film. Both had left the factory: one of them - Ga Hong Mei - went back to her village and tried working in a blue jean factory for awhile. And then she helped her family farm their animals - slaughtering cows, basically. I also know that Lio Lina quit working, but I don't know where she went - just that she did quit. I’ve followed up on all the revelers, too.
These were the two girls in the film who mentioned that they might not stay at the bead factory? [David nods, yes] One of the reasons that I liked your documentary but also occasionally found it a little naïve maybe...
... Was that you were so willing to jump into the whole thing: the Mardi Gras revelers, as well as the people working back in China.
The thing about the film is that this is not really the local Mardi Gras; it's just Bourbon Street, where a kind of Mardi Gras is constantly going on. This is where the tourists always go, and the majority of the beads manufactured are made for these tourists.
Is this a fairly new development in our "cultural life"? This Bourbon Street thing about flashing the boobs in exchange for the beads?
Yes, relatively. The first such recorded event in exchange for beads was in 1978, and it was actually the showing of the penis. It was noted by a newspaper reporter than the women started yelling at the men to show them their penis.
This was before men started yelling "Show us your boobs!"?
Absolutely. It's documented, too. I've done tons of research. The women first started yelling at the men to show theirs, and initially this was called weenie-wagging (men dangling their weenies from balconies). After that is when the beads became big - and became a commodity that could be marketed as a kind of commerce - in exchange for nudity. And then this really hit the Bourbon Street area big time. So the film really takes place just on Bourbon Street and is not representative of the other plural Mardi Gras at all.
But Bourbon Street is sort of going on all the time?
24/7, but this kind of thing also goes on in places like Las Vegas, in Orlando, at sporting events, the Indianapolis 500, football games. And the beads always seem to be there - symbolic of fun, letting go or cutting loose. So the purpose of the film is to transform and add different meanings to those beads. It sort of the puts "girls gone wild," "boys gone wild," into the context of the global economy. That was my intent. And that was why I started asking the "naïve" question to all the revelers: "Where do you think these beads come from?"
And nobody seems to know. Or care. But there was one person who knew, right?
That's it. One person.
Interesting. Strange. And putting it together as you have in this manner makes an odd juxtaposition - but with a bang. Yours is a documentary that is actually embarrassing to the US, though you don't ever come right out and say that. But you don't have to. And it's a short film, too. 70 minutes?
While I've got you, can we also talk about the new documentary you're making right now?
I can talk about it, but only sort of. My partner Ashley Sabin can help with it, but she's not here today because couldn't make it, and she apologizes for that.
She's the producer?
We're both directors. In fact, I'd say she is actually more of a director than I am. She sort of directs me to direct!
Is this because she is more informed or adept about filmmaking techniques?
Well, we've collaborated on all of our projects so far - except Mardi Gras because we met when I was making that one. We exchanged pictures and shared info and did a cross-cultural analysis together in the film. And for the story we are filming now, the big question is, How to make reference to something without actually referring to it?
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