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Many Truths to Speak: The Changing Ecology of Documentary Industry in China

For many investors, Chinese documentaries are like a hot potato, (more blisteringly hot than the yams sold on streets in the wintertime) and documentary film has had an antagonistic relationship with the state from its very inception. From the start of the New Chinese Documentary movement in the 1990s, Chinese independent documentary sought to provide an alternative channel of discourse to that of the state. Though the movement was formed from the ranks of CCTV professionals, the young doc makers used the newly-available digital video cameras (DVs) to capture the lives of marginalised communities.

From Labour Camps to Labour Activism

Yesterday’s labour camps have morphed into today’s OEM manufacturers, and Chinese documentary makers have not skipped a beat. Wang Bing’s Bitter Money, 2016, tracks the precarious lives of garment workers in Huizhou, arriving in the city with little more than dreams but finding only nightmares. We see a woman lining up for repeated beatings from her husband and a worker who takes a few shots of courage to confront his boss about his withheld salary and is told, “Come back when you’re sober.” While Bitter Money focuses more on the psychological spiritual degradation of migrant work, Complicit, 2017 by Lynn Zhang Jialing, zeroes in on the physical effects of factory work—examining the plight of electronics workers who developed leukemia from by Benzene and n-hexane exposure while working at Foxconn. The solvents are used to clean mobile phone screens but could easily be swapped out for safer cleaning agents at little cost to the consumer. Workers rally for compensation and better working conditions, but many return to the factory after they are treated, having no better options. Worker activism takes centre stage in Wen Hai’s We the Workers, which focuses on several labour activists in Guangzhou devoting their bodies and their brains to training workers in collective bargaining. Each day is a different protest, involving bruises and lacerations at the hands of the police, or a meeting in a fluorescent-lit room where they try to convince sceptical factory workers of their constitutional rights.

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