China documentaries (Pt. 1): blue jeans and revolutions

The arrival of my big-budget Jackie Chan Chinese propaganda history epic movie debut prompted me to brush up on some Chinese history, so I recently re-watched China: A Century of Revolution, and that’s put me on a Chinese documentary kick. So here are some brief reviews of China: A Century of Revolution, China Blue, and Declassified: Tiananmen. I’ll review Young & Restless in China, Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home in Part 2. We found all of these at our local (Canadian) public library. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

China: A Century of Revolution

China: A Century of Revolution is a 6-hour sweep of China’s 20th century history from 1911 to 1997. That’s a lot of complicated history to cover in not very much time, and perhaps this film’s greatest weakness is that it leaves a lot out. But the details it does include — the interviews — are priceless. From ancient-looking Mao-suited peasants recalling the adventure and tragedy they experienced in pre-Liberation China to former Red Guard and Tiananmen leaders, from true believers in Mao to controversial figures like Li Zhisui, watching people who have experienced the history I’ve read about tell their stories was powerful. And the people interviewed are interesting characters themselves — some funny, some heartbreaking, all memorable. It’s also packed with great archive footage. There is no way it’s not banned in China, but thanks to the largely unregulated black market for rip-off DVDs, I bought a copy at a store in a shopping centre on 紫金山路 in Tianjin for about $3. It was being sold next to the old revolutionary operas from the Cultural Revolution.

For more about China’s modern history, see our Chinese history category, which includes:

China Blue

China Blue portrays life in a denim factory for three village teenage girls who’ve migrated to the coast in search of work to support their family. It’s a surprisingly intimate and exposing look at the conditions and management of a typical (actually better-than-average) Chinese factory. I don’t know how they pulled it off, though they were apparently interrogated by the police on numerous occasions and had film confiscated. Although the film shows rather than tells, it certainly has an axe to grind — Chinese workers are blatantly abused and the fault ultimately lies not with the Chinese factory owners, but with the organizations who benefit most from the labour exploitation: the Western corporations who insist on rock-bottom prices and high-pressure deadlines, whose halfhearted auditing of their suppliers’ working conditions is really just for P.R. and legal coverage back home, not for the workers’ protection. Basically, the film draws a damning direct causal connection between exploited Chinese teenagers in sweatshops and Western corporations and consumers.

They managed to film all kinds of things, funny and dramatic, including:

  • workers wondering about the people who would wear the jeans and how incredibly big they must be;
  • an emotional confrontation between overworked, unpaid workers and the boss, co-led by an experienced 14-year-old;
  • business negotiations between a foreign customer and the factory boss, illustrating where the pressure to abuse workers past their breaking point comes from;
  • a Spring Festival village family reunion, what all migrant labourers look forward to but some can’t afford;
  • both the boss’ and workers’ first-hand opinions of the other.

While the consumer connection to Chinese labour exploitation is the biggest theme, China Blue has other significant and interesting things to show us. The girls talk a bit about (and we see throughout the film) what it means to be a girl when your family wanted a boy, and the pressure on rural migrants that causes them to tolerate the coarse, abusive conditions of the factory. The factory consumes everyone from the top management to the factory floor; even the boss looks and sounds exhausted when the shipping deadline looms on large, rush orders. The film seems to compare the various ways people try to retain their humanity in such an environment: the boss practices calligraphy in his roof-top garden, one teenage worker analogizes her migrant labourer life through kung-fu stories in her journal, another pursues romance. A Spring Festival village family reunion for one girl shows us the good side rural Chinese life, and what the workers look forward to and save for all year long (while the main protagonist can’t afford to return home for Chinese New Year because her first month’s pay was held as a “deposit”). The relationship between worker and consumer is, I think, powerfully highlighted near the end in when two of the girls discuss the risk of slipping something into a shipment of jeans.

One grain of salt worth pointing out: when reading the fine print, you’ll find that the voice-overs are not done by the workers themselves, but are based on their journals and interviews.

For more on Western consumers and Chinese factory worker abuse, see:

Declassified: Tiananmen

I stopped paying attention to History Channel productions a while back, since, to my mind, they put the “taint” in “edutainment” (as in, “taint one nor the other”). Their Tiananmen documentary from 2005 is par for the course. The narration is so hyped and over-dramatized that the blood lust is just palpable. However, I grudgingly suggest you watch it solely for the video footage, much of which you don’t see in Century of Revolution. You can see it for free on YouTube.

For more about Tiananmen, see:

If you were only going to watch one of these, I’d recommend Century of Revolution if you’re into history, and China Blue if you’re into social justice and contemporary global issues.