Among the highlights of the show “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China,” currently at Mass MoCA, is the inclusion of several documentary films as an integral part of the show. In films such as “Losers and Winners,” “Metropolis: Report from China” and “China Blue,” several points of encounter between Chinese citizens and the rest of the world are captured and examined — and never have the Chinese seemed more alien, nor the differences between us and them more illuminated. In “China Blue,” director Micha X Peled examines China’s relationship with our desires by following the lives of girls working in a jeans factory. At the center of the film is 17-year old Jasmine, who has left her family farm and headed to the city in order to eek out an additional income to help her parents. Jasmine is just one small speck in a larger migration — 130 million Chinese peasants have recently left their rural homes for lives as cheap city labor, the largest movement of labor in the world.
The conditions in the farm seem backward to Western eyes, but the factory dormitories are only mildly better. Twelve girls crowd a room and share a bathroom — this is highlighted by unsanitary conditions and a lack of heating in cold weather. The factory is equally gloomy — fines for misbehavior like talking, giggling and tardiness, meals deducted from paychecks, 15-hour shifts and seven-day work weeks, no overtime pay, little sleep, and getting sick can result in dismissal. The factory workers get all this and six cents an hour, with pay being withheld often for as long as two months.
As the focus of the film, Jasmine is a delight and gives a bright face to the determination of the Chinese worker — introspective and creative, funny and sympathetic. She spends her work time formulating stories in her head that she writes down at night — the tales of a girl Kung Fu student who leaves the farm to elevate herself and save her family. Along with Jasmine are her friends, some as young as 14, spending their lives in a situation that is at best like indentured servitude, at worst like slavery.
This factory is easily contrasted with “Losers and Winners,” which takes the sort of event you wouldn’t think much of — the closing of a coal processing plant in Germany — and captures the moment in such as way that it becomes a metaphor for the rise of China. Once again, the lives of the workers are studied closely and their dedication to the work they must do, even though it certainly leaves much to be desired.
Here, the Chinese have traveled to Germany to dismantle the plant for reuse in their own country. In a both comical and grim situation, the German workers are now required to supervise the Chinese who are taking apart the former source of their livelihood. There are, of course, tensions — asking the Germans to do this is like rubbing their faces in their own misfortunes and, at times, the humiliation of the situation gets the better of them and they express it through their attitudes toward the Chinese workers.
In the view of the Germans, the Chinese are fumbling and stumbling their way through the job — the view is that they are inexperienced at the work and not up to what is being demanded of them. The Chinese want the Germans to just let them do it their own way, though they begrudgingly give into the country’s safety demands and required inspections. One gets the impression it is not that hard in China and, if “China Blue” is anything to judge by, it isn’t — corruption and disregard for standards and the self-esteem of the hard working employees is often presented as of secondary importance to the appearance of efficiency.
“Metropolis: Report from China” documents the journey of German filmmakers hoping to remake Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and putting forth the idea that they can do so in a Chinese context. The idea is that current conditions in the rising city of Beijing is somehow analogous to the Every City portrayed in Lang’s film. Artists Clemens von Wedemeyer and Maya Schweizer travel around scouting locations and begging the indulgence of Chinese workers to give their honest opinions on their lives and their country.
It’s not hard to see the basic premise as being sound, after all Beijing is becoming a city of glittering towers that is populated by hordes of workers — and as you hear the people talk about their lives and the place they live, you can’t help but think that the hammer will fall someday. In “Metropolis,” the hordes take to the streets, but when you take China to the extreme, you have to wonder if there isn’t more of a chance of a golden female robot being created there than the workers rebelling. At least, that’s the impression I get from “China Blue” and “Losers and Winners.” The personal resiliency in regard to the national demands for labor are amazing — these people are worked to death — but it’s almost as if that armor has grown into natural skin, the very thing the workers must protect themselves from has become a blasé way of life.
In other words, the Chinese workers are certainly survivors, but that’s exactly it — they just survive. They don’t float above. They do their jobs and take their lumps, they live in cramped dorms and have their individual rights encroached upon and their safety compromised — and they listen to their managers claim concern otherwise. At times, you can’t help but admire their gung-ho attitude about getting the work done — others, it makes you sad.
What the films capture — and, indeed, the entire show at MoCA — is a country of widening girth, where the belt does not reflect the gain. Keep your belt tightened and your flab follows — but, eventually, it spills out a little and if you keep it up, the belt snaps. You’ve got to wonder at what point in the process are the workers of China. As documented in these films, their encounters with the West are by one reckoning a co-mingling with aliens, but these are aliens may well seek conquest through that most viral of instances, example.
It’s prudent to measure what is revealed in these films against the continual headlines, though. We in the West nod with a kind of knowing smugness at the reports of the actions against Tibetan protesters and the scuttling of the Chinese government — yet again — to curb information citizens can obtain from the Internet. All the while, Chinese citizens have been showing support for their government’s actions — some in the press have expressed fear that if any action is taken by the U.S. in response to China’s response to Tibet, that will be the thing that sends the Chinese pouring into the street. And they won’t be complaining about their lot as underpaid factory workers, their concerns will be of a nationalistic realm.
Many in the West charge that they are victims of their government’s propaganda, but that’s not only in regard to the issue of Tibet, as these films obviously document.
It will be a nice thing if the day comes that there is an explosion in China, it will be the movement of Jasmine and others like her to seize dignity and compensation for their labors. In the meantime, it’s the job of the West to teach by example — that certainly raises the bar for Western behavior from the short-sighted excesses of the last eight years, but that’s all part of coming to an international understanding. These three films illustrate what a delicate process that is.