Micha Peled and his film crew talk about the risks both they and the people in their film took to get the story out about life in Chinese factories.
Chinese Risk Their Liberty
Independent organizing of workers is illegal in China, in violation of international treaties and covenants that China has signed. To find out what is going on for China’s workers behind their factory gates, we got in touch with labor organizers with the help of Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch. The people we contacted must keep their activities completely underground, through a loose and clandestine network around the country. If caught, they face either a prison term or a labor re-education camp, where the authorities send people without access to trial or any due process of law.
Reaching our contact required a complicated cloak-and-dagger operation. We could not use hotel or pay phones and had to replace our mobile phone number frequently. Our main contact was not a line worker, but an engineer with access to management memos in his factory. He provided us with a memo that instructed department managers to train their workers in the “correct” answers to questions during inspections from Wal-Mart, the main customer of the factory. The management knew in advance not only the date of the inspection, but also the method: the inspectors pick a few workers at random for an interview. The workers were told how to respond to questions about labor conditions under threat that if they tell the truth the factory would lose its contract and they would lose their jobs.
The man who provided us with the information agreed to risk speaking on camera because he felt strongly that the world should know how China‘s workers are exploited with the complicity of multinational retail corporations. An interview with this labor activist, whose identity is masked, appears in the film.
We Risk Our Equipment
China maintains tight control over all foreign media. Filmmakers from abroad are required to obtain permits to film. If permission is granted, officials from the Propaganda Department accompany the production unit from the moment they arrive and are present throughout the filming. For obvious reasons, we chose not to apply for such a restrictive permit.
Instead, we smuggled our DV camera into China by disassembling it and stashing the various parts into separate shopping bags. The bags were then carried across the Hong Kong-China border by a woman who blended in easily with the usual flow of daytime shoppers. We also carried a mini-DV camera openly as many tourists do.
Getting the equipment into the country, however, was only the first challenge. When we left the safe confines of the factory—where most of the filming took place—to follow our characters back to their home villages, things got difficult. In the countryside of Sichuan province, even our small crew stood out.
The first police intervention occurred while we were filming a love story. On the occasion of her 20th birthday, Orchid, a zipper installer at the factory, returned home after a two-year absence to introduce her boyfriend to her family. The day before the boyfriend's arrival the police caught up with us. They threatened to have the cameraman fired from his regular job at a local TV station, and ordered us to leave the area at once. The crucial moment in Orchid's love story—which we had followed for six months—was about to be missed.
Undaunted, we left only as far as Louzo, the nearest city. There we hired a driver whose truck had tinted windows and returned to Orchid's house early the next morning. We took a dirt road as far as it allowed, then lugged the equipment up the hill to her house, which was fortunately located on a remote hill outside the village. The scene of Orchid's birthday party is one of the liveliest in the film.
On yet another occasion, we were filming a factory strike. The police stopped us even though we did not trespass on the factory grounds. They wanted to take us right away to the police station. Only thanks to our production coordinator, a Hong Kong based CNN stringer who intervened on our behalf, we escaped arrest.
The most trying event, however, took place the following year. We arranged to film our protagonist at her home village, and again hired a local cameraman. This time director Micha Peled, the only Western-looking person in the crew, remained in a town an hour away. Still the police intervened, arresting not only the cameraman, but Associate Producer Song Chen as well. When the police learned that Chen was a Taiwan-born U.S. citizen and not a Chinese, they subjected her and our cameraman to an all-night interrogation. It took frantic calls to various contacts before the police finally let them go, but the tapes were confiscated. Subsequent attempts by the U.S. Consul to have the tapes released proved futile.
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