Mardi Gras: Made in China / 2004 / 74 minutes
Mardi Gras beads were once made of Czechoslovakian glass and often kept, whereas the plastic beads, popular since the 1970s, are usually thrown away after the festival1. Today’s bead industry sustains itself by continuously remanufacturing a disposable product. David Redmon’s documentary, Mardi Gras: Made in China, traces plastic bead necklaces, masks, oversized genitals, and other Mardi Gras accouterments from the New Orleans festival back to a bead factory in China, tying production to over-consumption. The film is direct, even-handed, and honest—not easy for a documentary. In interviews with Mardi Gras revelers, the bead distributor in New Orleans, the factory owner in China, the factory workers, and the parents of workers, Redmon’s questions are simple and straightforward, free of angry invective. He visits the bead factory as an anthropoligist or, at most, as a cultural ambassador, not as an investigative reporter, and that’s why Mardi Gras: Made in Chnia is the best documentary I’ve seen this year. Mardi Gras participants are asked “Do you know where the beads come from?”, and factory workers are asked, “Do you know where the beads end up?”, and it’s clear that neither side is fully aware of the other’s existence. The factory workers are incurious about who would want to buy “these ugly beads.” Sadly, the Chinese workers don’t venture to characterize the thousands of purple necklace and plastic penis consumers, while the Mardi Gras revellers are either ignorant of the beads’ origin, ambivalent and momentarily embarrassed about their role as consumers, or too drunk to care. A typical response: “Please don’t make me think about it—I’m on vacation!”
The Chinese workers, 95% of them teenage girls, are paid around $1.50 for 12-18 hour days in the factory. They live at the factory, and are only allowed to leave on Sundays (if their day off happens to fall on a Sunday) and holidays. The factory owner proudly explains his labor policies: every worker has a Sisyphean production quota, there is a 5% penalty for not meeting your quota, and an “up to 10%” bonus for going over your quota. One worker’s stated maximum output is 100 items per day, but her quota is 200, so she gets penalized every day. Penalties are a big part of what keeps the workers in line: a day’s pay is deducted for talking at work, a week for any machine failure under your watch, and a month if you’re caught hanging out with the opposite sex in the evening. The factory conditions are clearly dangerous, and much of the loud, aging machinery is operated around the clock. But it’s not entirely clear from the film whether these workers are unhappy at the long hours and repetitive work, angered by the low pay, or simply relieved to have a job “on the outside.” The girls are without much hope (“hope is irrelevant for me,” says one, who is saving money so that her little brother may go to school). Despite their working conditions, their spirits are high and they do not seem overtly angry or bitter.
After interviewing the producers and consumers, Redmon decides to do a cultural exchange: he makes photographs of Mardi Gras partiers and shows them to highly amused factory workers (“She’s showing her boobs!”). They recognize the cultural differences: “We would never think to do anything so embarrassing. Those Americans are crazy!” Redmon again returns to New Orleans and shows his footage from China in the streets during Mardi Gras. People are shocked about the wages and working conditions, others brush it off with blind acceptance. “It doesn’t matter—it’s all relative. In China, $1.50 is probably a great wage,” says one vacationing MBA student. No boycott was announced—no necklaces were removed in self-disgust. But I can say with certainty that I’ll never show my tits at Mardi Gras again.