Blue Jeans and Ethical Dilemmas

March 23, 2006

So often when you boil down a question, it becomes one of those perennial unaswerable ones: nature or nurture? heart or mind? chicken or fish? And it's so annoying, because we asked those questions in high school english and I already know that you're just in for endless debate with murky morality and rationalizations all around. Another one of those questions came up for me last night at, where else: the SF Asian American Film Festival. It was a really amazing documentary, called "China Blue." Shot over the course of many years in a denim factory in southern China, the film followed both the factory owner and a young girl named Jasmine through their travails of getting out orders on time and trying to make a buck. Literally. The whole time I was watching the film I kept wondering, "How did they get this kind of access?" They were shooting inside the factory, following the owner to a brutal negotiation with a client in Shanghai, recording a standoff between workers (whose pay was 9 weeks overdue) and management. They interviewed the girls (mostly age 14 -20) in their dorm room, filmed during forced overtime hours -- literally all night for days on end, without pay -- and recorded Jasmine's disappointment when her first paycheck was withheld as a "deposit" by the company, and consequently she couldn't go home to visit her family that year. The film gave an incredibly candid look inside a contemporary sweatshop, and it was a huge accomplishment. But here's the dilemma part, for me: During the Q&A, filmmaker Micha X Peled and his coproducer admitted that they told the factory owner they were making a film about the "great economic boom in China." They courted him for months, "became friends," and thus were given almost completely unfettered access to the factory floor, to workers, and to some business meeting. As someone who's worked both as a journalist and in documentary film, I find this extremely problematic. It's true, there's no way they'd have been able to make this film if they had said, "we want to show how you exploit your workers for profit, how the world's jeans are made by 14-year-old girls forced to work all night who get paid $1 or $2 a day." And I'm really glad I was able to see this film. So... Do the ends justify the means? It just seems unethical to me to lie to your subjects about the nature of your film. You have a special position of power as a filmmaker (or journalist) -- in the edit room you can manipulate their image, select their speech, and lay down music to create empathy or antipathy. You can distribute this created image around the world freely, make money, get famous, use it to get your next grant, whatever. Their image is your capital, and a good filmmaker exploits that capital to their best advantage. And therefore I feel like we have great responsibility to treat our subjects fairly. The film explained that this was actual a pretty decent factory: it was new, clean, and the owner was proud of it. It said that 100% of factories in China have to operate like this, or worse, in order to stay competitive. "We're in a race to the bottom," Peled said, and it really seems to be true. But if that's the case, then it seems especially unfair to make this factory owner the face of China's exploitative labor market. Maybe the filmmakers thought of it as an undercover investigation, rooting out the bad guys and exposing them to the world. And in certain circumstances I think that's okay. So I don't know what to think. I have to respect the filmmakers for their vision, their dogged persistence in the face of arrests and confiscated footage and being forced to start over after two years of shooting. And I especially respect them for bringing a story that few in this country have seen so close up -- the place where our jeans come from. So I'm rather flummoxed about the whole thing. And it feels relevant to me, because there have been a lot of times where I've wanted to be deceptive about a project I was working on, or just not tell the whole truth. Where you draw that line just seems to be one of those unanswerable questions. I'd be interested if anyone else has had this kind of dilemma, and what they did about it.




China Blue is fake.
hmmm. a real dilemma. if you are candid, then you get no access and the story never gets out; if you lie are you any better than the subject of your expose'? I suppose that if the filmmaker comes into the project with the preset idea that he/she is going to 'blow the lid off' of the explotation and 'evilness' of the owner and selects only those images and info that supports the pre-ordained 'conclusion' then that is pretty bogus.But if the filmmaker goes in with the idea that he/she is going to document 'what is' - both the positive and the negative - then it seems the positive 'spin' placed on the film objectives to 'sell' the idea isn't so troublesome. i guess one of the problems is that documentaries lie somewhere between news and entertainment. much like editorials, they often have a particular 'point of view' but that doesn't give them license to ignore the facts. all reporters have a 'bias' of some sort, they are human beings, but truth has to trump the temptation to distort reality beyond recognition. then it becomes propoganda.
From your description I don't see where there is a lie. The film does seem to be about "China's great economic boom." To be sure, it says things about that boom that the factory-owner would not want said: that the boom may be leaving workers behind or is driven by cheap labor and ignoring labor rights.Overwhelmingly, the journalists moral responsibility is to her audience, not the subject. I just don't see any special responsibility to spin the subject in a positive light as thanks for access. If this factory owner was naive about the journalists obligation to his audience, then that is not the fault of the journalist.Ultimately, "treating the subject fairly" is not the same as treating the subject as they wish to be treated or even being entirely upfront about how you will treat the subject and the strongest obligation of fairness is to the audience.
Scenes in China Blue seem set up and arranged. I seriously doubt the film's message; it seems more of the director's point of view and advancement of a thesis that follows a typical academic analysis of a product. Love story? No way - it's a wanna-be piece of molded fiction.
I think you should be thinking more of the social ethical isses....wake up!