Sweatshops: The Reel World of Globalization

Activists keep the corporate agenda of globalization in check and the frontline battle is often waged at the gates of sweatshop factories. There have been a few films that capture this movement, all coming from different angles, but with the same goal in mind – exposing the corporate machine. While film as an educational resource conjures up old-school 1950 documentary instructional film reels – “Say Billy, just what is a sweatshop anyway? Gee Susan, that’s a tough one, lets go ask the factory owner…”, the documentary is a powerful tool. Whether to see the faces behind the labels and goods we consume or to see the bigger picture of corporate globalization, the documentaries reviewed here will inspire, scare, make you laugh and induce tears of anger.

If you had no distrust of corporations before or were only just skeptical, be prepared for the scales to tip once you see The Corporation. Based on the book by Joel Bakan, who had a revelation in college that a corporation, if having the same rights as a person, could be diagnosed as a psychopath. That’s just the surface of the problem, not to mention just what these psychopaths have been doing all over the world. With haunting interviews from the Howard Zinn, Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Naomi Klien, Vandana Shiva and a cadre of other voices that all culminate into the chorus of something is wrong in the world today. While the film engages a dark and sinister perception of corporatized chaos, we are left with some shining examples of humanity’s triumphs.

Now perhaps its going too far to paint the entire corporate world as servants to an evil agenda, and The Corporation does discuss the problem of white collar criminals locked in a system. So maybe the engines of economic power really leave those that operate it just as clueless as the rest of us. The Yes Men are that rare breed of intelligence, wit, tenacity and comedic genius that get away with the pranks they do. Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin, if that is even their real names, are founding members of The Yes Men, featured in this hilarious documentary. The Yes Men take anti-consumerism /corporate activism and pranks to a whole new level, and even in their highly publicized accomplishments still manage to dumbfound board rooms and seminars. The film follows their excursion into global trade negotiations, where using a fake website of the GATT, get invited to speak in the media and at seminars as WTO experts. Why does it work? Much of what they say is true, no matter how awful or absurd it sounds, and stupid white men are just damn convincing when they wear a suit.

While The Yes Men exposes the ridiculous nature of deciding the fate of developing nations from plush convention centers in Scandinavia, Stephanie Black’s lyrical documentary Life and Debt digs into the dirt for answers. A scenic composition of images from Jamaica shows the reality of the decisions made by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) that affect farmers and factory workers alike. At once gripping, Black’s message comes across softly, like her scenes of 3 Rastafarian philosophers around a pit fire, who ring in tune with the words of Jamaica Kincaid and the gentle music of Ziggy Marley. While this is a story of one people from Jamaica, their struggle reaches across the oceans around the Global South.

While these films are available on DVD and still shown at screenings around the world, 2 documentaries are making their way through the challenges of funding and releasing independent features. Mardi Gras: Made in China is the ultimate juxtaposition of western consumer culture and factory life in Southeast Asia. David Redmon took to the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras and showed images of factory conditions from the bead manufactures in China to the ladies flashing their goods for the prized jewelry. He also showed footage of just what those beads are used for at Mardi Gras to the women factory workers in China and all of it is sure to manifest in one big transcultural-exchange no one expected. While as of writing this, the film is not widely available on DVD yet, Redmon is touring the film to festivals and screenings.

The second film to keep an eye out for is Sweat, which follows St. John’s University Soccer coach, Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu to Indonesia to live in solidarity with Nike factory workers. This is the real deal, on the ground with the workers and the filmmakers subjected themselves to the reality of being one of the sweated. The film, while not yet released, is sure to be a bold response to the criticisms Keady received for his public stand against Nike’s empire built on the fragile backs of the global factory. While all the films mentioned here are certainly enlightening and educational, they capture a certain entertainment value rarely seen in trying to get a message across.

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