For the average man at Mardi Gras, beads are payment for a flash of Mary from Minneapolis’s breasts. They are mementos draped over the beer-bottle collection in college dorms or just as easily discarded to the street after the party is over. The beads are cheap trinkets, but their production comes at a heavy price. Mardi Gras: Made in China examines the trail of global commerce and exploitation from the sweatshops of China’s Fujian province (where the beads are made) to the orgiastic streets of New Orleans.The filmmaker, David Redmon, gained access to the bead factory, its boss and the mostly female workforce. Over time, he got the boss to trust him enough so he could interview the women without supervision. The women attest to 14-hour workdays with rest coming only in the tightly packed bunks of the factory dorm.
The film’s original score amplifies the brutal monotony of sweatshop labor through a remix of mechanical noises recorded from the factory. In true gonzo style, Redmon juxtaposes the worker footage with Mardi Gras debauchery, relentlessly driving home the disparities in class and privilege. The Mardi Gras tchotchkes, sometimes plastic penis charms, are also used to explore gender exploitation, which, considering the content, seems almost too easy.
Redmon notes that 1978 was both the year capitalism was unleashed in China (with the “to get rich is glorious” affirmation) and when the tradition of “beads for boobs” began at Mardi Gras. Yet the film leaves you almost relieved that you live on the “show your tits” continent. He fosters this sentiment by quoting women who love showing their tits, who see it as a liberating and empowering act.
The film tries to delve into China’s market reforms, which have broken up families in the countryside and produced massive wealth disparities. He contrasts the boss’s modern residence with the workers’ meager block home.
Apart from statistics about protests throughout the country, however, the film provides little context of the enormous social and labor upheavals convulsing China. In interviews with the filmmaker, the plant boss indicts himself on the
deplorable sweatshop conditions. He admits to docking the workers’ pay, punishing them like so many naughty children. Yet Redmon tends to depict these young women as if they are children. When they are not at work, they are shown dancing in their dorm rooms, not organizing for better labor conditions. A strike is mentioned only peripherally.
The film works in its quest to humanize the face of consumer-driven global capitalism, but misses in its analysis of the struggle against it.
Mardi Gras: Made in China is showing at Cinema Village on
East 12th Street through March 30.