San Francisco filmmaker Micha X. Peled answered questions yesterday after an East Bay screening of his recently releasedï¿½and widely heralded ï¿½ documentary China Blue, which gives a glimpse into the lives of several teenage girls who earn about six cents an hour making blue jeans for Western retailers including Wal-Mart.
The four dozen peopleï¿½primarily senior citizens, as the screening was held at 10am at the JCC in Walnut Creekï¿½seemed most curious to know how Peled got such incredible access to a factory. Many film critics and Peled himself have played up the notion that the film was, as described in a blurb on his Web site, "shot clandestinely." And although he didn't have governmental permission to shoot the film, Peled did have full in-and-out access to the factory itselfï¿½ access won by appealing to the ego of the owner, who had no idea Peled was out to document human rights violations. "I told Mr. Lam [the owner] that I'd make a film about him," Peled said, explaining that Guo Xi Lam, a former police chief in the Pearl River Delta factory city, was very proud of his burgeoning company. The ruse worked like a charm, and the owner told all of his workers to cooperate with the film crew.
Chinese authorities, however, weren't so understanding. In the course of the three-year project, police frequently harassed Peled's team. (The film's original protagonist dropped out after police warned the girl and her family that they'd get in "big trouble" if they participated in an American-made film.) When Peled sensed Lam growing antsy, the filmmaker pieced together a five-minute PR video rife with cheerful workers to appease the factory owner and encourage his continued cooperation. (The video, said Peled, was met with cheers and applause by when Lam played it at the company's annual anniversary party.)
The kiss-ass video wasn't the only ethically shaky tool Peled employed to get the story that, without question, deserved to be told. He said Wednesday that he paid the main subjects and had them sign a contract specifying how much (although he did not specify) in the presence of the factory ownerï¿½admitting that while it's a rare thing to do, he felt it was necessary. Jasmine, the 16-year-old village girl whose poignant story frames the film, kept a diaryï¿½one of the reasons Peled's crew was initially drawn to her. Some of her entries are used as voiceovers in the film. When asked to what extent Jasmine knew of Peled's real intent, and whether she became a co-conspirator, Peled said that while she was kept in the dark his team did coach her a bit to get the kind of material he wanted. "We did work with her on her journal," he said.
The closing scene in the film is even more concocted. In it, Jasmine plots with a friend to write a letter explaining her situation and slip it into a jeans' pocket in the hopes that someone in a faraway land would find it and get in touch with her. While Jasmine's actions, at times, appear to have been provoked by an off-camera question or comment, this scene is the only one that feels downright contrived, as though Jasmine is reading lines from a script.
"What happened with the letter? Did anyone ever find it?" an audience member asked Peled, her voice eagerï¿½thrilled, even.
"It was meant as a metaphor," Peled replied, explaining that the scenario was not intended to appear realistic, but to evoke questions in viewers: What would you do if you received such a note? Write her back? Contact the American retailer? Consider for once where your jeans were made, and how? The woman's face fell and at least one audience readerï¿½a journalist, natchï¿½also felt a bit cheated. It may not adhere to the strict journalistic standards reporters are accustomed to employing, but it's a fantastic documentary nonethelessï¿½well worth the eight bucks the JCC charged for admission. You can check out China Blue at the Roxie in SF through tomorrow night. Peled will speak after tonight's 7pm screening.