Review: Mardis Gras – Made in China
June 1, 2006 § Leave a Comment
The scenario itself is so stupid you can hardly believe it: One group of people spends about 12 hours a day and is paid 10 cents an hour to manufacture goods that another group of people tosses drunkenly at each other as they flash their private parts during a big, outdoor celebration. The items end up tossed in the garbage after the party. Sure, it sounds silly, but that’s what happens every Mardi Gras. David Redmon’s “Mardi Gras: Made in China” is a bold piece of documentary filmmaking, with Redmon tracing Mardi Gras beads from the naked chests of drunken coeds to a factory line in China comprised of teenage girls, and managing to maintain humor and a sense of fairness amidst the obvious immediacy and potential for grim subject matter.
Redmon takes his camera to both the Chinese factory that produces the beads and the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where they are put to use. Even when juxtaposed to the degradation of a Chinese factory worker, the scenes from Mardi Gras stand out as much more alien and disturbing. Still, Redmon manages the near impossible feat of tapping into the humanity of the drunken revelers on occasion — for every soused lout who ignores the question of “Do you know where the beads come from?” by bellowing something about a party, there is another person who shows some sign of remorse, not only because deep down they already know the answer, but also quickly own up to the fact that the beads are disposable garbage.
The beads are made in factories in China, largely populated by teenage girls with little education, who live, eat and breathe work as they pass the time in factory dormitories and live in fear of punishments for speaking during work or dating a boy from the same factory. Though it’s easy to imagine that the factory jobs do represent something better than the norm in that culture, it’s still hard to accept that a penny a necklace and half-day shifts are very compassionate ways of elevating a standard of life or building a hopeful future.
Redmon has astounding access in the factory — the girls speak freely on all matters, from their job fears and complaints to their affection for the other girls in the factory. Equally, Redmon spends a lot of time with the factory owner, whose officious ruthlessness about the bottom line is matched only by his earnestness and the gentleness with which he expresses these notions. The significance that is put into the work — and the actual hours and effort by the workers — can be quickly dispelled by an Google search for the term “Mardi Gras girls.”
The real problem is that while Redmon appears to be chronicling one item that serves prominent importance in one localized celebration, the implications of his film are much larger and far more disturbing. American holidays have become more and more filled with cheap, often throwaway, paraphernalia, from the plastic eggs of Easter to the tiny American flags of Independence Day — and these are mostly manufactured in China. Is the gaudiness of American holidays now being subsidized by the cheap labor of Asian teenagers with no future and very little in the present?
There is an irony, however, with the revelation that most of the factory girls think the beads are tacky and ugly and the American desire for them has always been a mystery. The answer why — as offered through Redmon and photos of Mardi Gras — seem to confirm something about Americans the workers have suspected all along. They giggle at the naughtiness of it all and shake their heads at the other culture’s stupidity — but they are still able to explain, very clearly, that they still want fair pay and workers’ rights for making the stupid, ugly trinkets.