Nile Perch and Blue Jeans: Videographing inequalities in globalized labor in China and Africa

Anybody concerned with globalization and the inequalities it produces ought to be aware of where the clothing and food he or she consumes on a daily basis comes from and who made it.  Yet when it comes to the labor that goes into producing our consumables in the modern industrial world, as Karl Marx understood so well, we are too often in the dark.  Enter two filmographers who have managed to shed some light on the globalizing forces of labor and production.

What do Nile Perch and blue jeans have in common?  Nothing, except that both are the subjects of recently made documentary films on global labor and the exploitative relationship between “developed” countries and “developing” ones.  In Darwin’s Nightmare (2005) directed and filmed by Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, we follow the tangled web of relations between several actors, including Russian pilots, local prostitutes, street urchins, and factory owners, all of which revolve around an international trade in fish and guns.  The story focuses on the town of Mwanza located on the southern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, and all of the characters in the film populate this town.  The Nile Perch, which were introduced into the Lake Victorian ecology, are a fitting subject for the film, since they have rapaciously taken over the lake, displacing many other fish species and forcing local fishermen to rely on them for their meager livings.  One could argue that blue jeans have done the same for the textiles ecology in China.  In China Blue (2005), Micha Peled takes us into the world of factory labor in the Pearl River Delta region of China, where millions of young women from interior provinces work for pennies an hour to produce the world’s supply of denim.  

Though they cover different world regions and industries, these two films have much in common.  Both films reveal the modes of exploitation that characterize contemporary globalization, where European or American companies make use of the cheap labor forces of “developing” countries to produce the products their consumers demand.  Both films concentrate on a few characters whose lives tell a much larger story.  In both films, there is a tragic element to the main characters, and a sense of inescapability from the fates assigned to them, although in the case of China Blue, there appears to be a ray of hope.

The two filmmakers, Sauper and Peled, seem to share a common sensibility in both their cinematography and their method of storytelling.  Filmed by hand, the films have a slightly home-made quality to them, though the high sound quality of each film suggests a second hand in the filming process.  Neither films uses a voice-over narrative, each preferring to let the characters and images tell the story, though both provide an occasional snippet of textual information to carry it along.  

Each film provides a rich picture of the people and the environment they inhabit.  In Darwin’s Nightmare, the camera juxtaposes the characters against their specific environments, often placing a close-up of the face of the interviewee on one side or another of a much bigger shot, often an exterior shot of a scene relevant to the story.  We see beautiful yet tragic scenes of street children playing on the beach or making their way through the town of Mwanza.  We see gorgeous shots of fishermen leaving and returning to shore with their catch, and workers gutting the fish in primitive factories.  In China Blue, the camera follows the main characters, three young factory girls, as they navigate their way through the environments of the blue jeans factory, the prison-like barracks in which they live, and the southern town in which the factory is located.  We see plenty of shots of jeans being manufactured in various stages.  We also get to witness scenes of some of the girls returning to their home villages in western China.  

Seeing these films together provides some additional insights into the unequal world of globalized labor.  Viewers of China Blue may sympathize with the female and male workers of this factory, who struggle daily to earn their meager pay against a factory manager who must constantly find ways to cut costs in the cutthroat world of textile production, including docking and withholding pay.  To be sure, the lives of these people are tough, with many nights spent working overtime for little or no extra earnings.  And when they contravene the rules of the factory by sneaking out at night or sleeping on the job, their pay is cut accordingly.

Yet compared to the fishermen of Mwanza and their wives and children, the factory workers of China do not seem so bad off.  There are different levels of inequality in the world.  Chinese workers may work backbreaking hours, but there is hope in this film, since some of the characters are clearly creating better lives for themselves and their rural families.  They have chosen to work in the factory, even if they do not always accept the conditions under which they labor.  And they do seem to have some bargaining power, as revealed when they hold a collective strike after missing a few weeks of back pay.  One of the girls hopes to earn enough for her and her future husband to open a small business--a dream that is difficult yet not impossible to achieve.

Not so for the African workers, whose future looks far bleaker.  By the end of Darwin’s Nightmare, we are made to understand that the Russian planes that carry the fish to European markets return with deadly cargo:  guns, tanks, and other weapons that will help to perpetuate the internecine wars that plague the African continent.  Many of the children on the streets of Mwanza are victims of the AIDS crisis, which has yet to reach levels in China that it has in Africa (and one hopes, will never reach such levels).  As one character describes toward the end of the film, the international aid agencies that Europeans and Americans send to Africa often do more harm than good.  The locals do not seem to have any other options but to participate in an exploitative and ultimately deadly relationship with the developed world.

One issue that deserves more attention in both films is sexual exploitation.  Darwin’s Nightmare suggests this when one of the female characters, a local prostitute who services the Russian pilots, is killed by an Australian client during the filming (as might be surmised, the event is not shown, just noted in the film).  In another scene we learn that a young girl prefers to hang out with local prepubescent street boys, since they help protect her from the sexual aggressions of older male street gangs.  Yet the film only hovers on the edges of this phenomenon.  One thing I was wondering is, what happened to the Australian who murdered the prostitute?

While suggestions of sexual explotation are rife in Darwin's Nightmare, this does not seem to be as much of an issue in China Blue.  In fact, sexual exploitation gains nary a mention.  This is somewhat odd, considering that millions of migrant women in China labor in the burgeoning sex industry that can be found in the coastal provinces as well as the interior.  There are also plenty of indications in the media that many factory managers and owners in China sexually exploit their female employees.  Yet the only suggestion of a sexual relationship in this film is that between a young worker named Orchid and her boyfriend of three years, who by the end of the film travels with her to Sichuan to meet her family.  One wonders if Peled deliberately ignored the sexual side of migrant labor in China, or if the issue simply didn’t come up in the milieu of characters he chose to focus on in telling his story.

In making their films, both filmmakers ran up against local and national authorities who do not wish this sort of story to be told.  Apparently, since the film was released, Sauper is no longer welcome in Tanzania.  Peled and his crew, as mentioned at the end of the film, were detained by Chinese authorities and their tapes confiscated.  These were not easy tales to tell, and yet both filmmakers escaped with enough footage to tell a rich story about the inequities of global labor.  The next time you put on a pair of blue jeans or wolf down a filet of fish, you may wonder where it came from.  Watching these films might just give you a clue.