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Red Dust

High Quality On-Demand Stream (Full-Screen) iPod compatible Quicktime/MOV

Contact: Karin Mak   
Director: Karin Mak
Producer: Karin Mak
Runtime: 21 min
Synopsis: Red cadmium dust drifted freely in China’s nickel-cadmium battery factories owned and operated by GP Batteries (GP), one of the world’s top battery manufacturers. Ren, a migrant worker originally from Sichuan, worked for over seven years in the factory, inhaling the toxic dust daily. She now suffers from frequent headaches and breathing difficulties. If untreated, the cadmium poisons the body, leading to kidney failure, cancer, and even death. RED DUST tells an unexamined side of China’s economic development: the resistance, courage, and hope of workers battling occupational disease, demanding justice from the local government and global capital. Chinese migrant workers are deemed disposable by factory owners and are stereotypically viewed as quiet and passive victims. However, Ren and other GP workers (Min, Fu, and Wu) fight back. Labor issues are very sensitive in China, and workers who publicly discuss their struggles do so at great risk. The audience discovers along with the filmmaker, a Chinese American, the horrors of the global assembly line. The film’s cinema-verite style gives viewers an intimate and immediate portrait of working life in China. The film is shot on digital video in order to maintain a low profile in China, where official film shoots require government approval. The documentary follows the main character Ren on her journey home to rural Sichuan, a poor province in China where many factory workers hail from. Ren suffers from cadmium poisoning, and worries about what will happen to her family as her health deteriorates. Ren meets regularly with her friends Min and Fu, who are also worked for GP. Now the three women help other workers who suffer from the effects of cadmium poisoning through lawsuits and actions. The film intercuts between scenes of Ren in the country and scenes of her comrades in the city. The back and forth visually juxtaposes the rural countryside with the cityscape. Over 150 million Chinese peasants have flocked to the cities to earn money in low-wage jobs. This mass migration is one of the reasons China's labor costs are low. The surplus labor provided by migrant workers attracts foreign investors like GP, a multinational company that makes batteries for Wal-Mart, Mattel, and Toys ‘R’ Us. Most of the migrants who work in the factories are women. Ren, who left the countryside three days before she was set to start middle school, accuses the factory of taking advantage of her as a migrant worker: 'We don't have much education...The factory never told us cadmium was harmful.' Audiences meet Ren’s hard-working family in the countryside—her mother, who is a farmer, and a cousin whom Ren has not seen in fifteen years. The slower-paced rural life is reflected in longer and wider shots. The beautiful landscapes and rustic feel, however cannot hide the poverty, lack of opportunities, and the legacy of favoring boys over girls in China that push women like Ren to leave the countryside. Rural life is incredibly labor-intensive as Ren and her mom are always doing something while talking to the camera: hand washing laundry, preparing vegetables, or clearing land. Details of the country life are richly captured. In one scene, an itinerant barber comes by Ren’s home to cut Ren and her mom’s hair. As the camera captures the cutting, audiences learn that they are selling their hair to make extra money. Meanwhile back in the city of Huizhou, Min and Fu gather in a hotel room – a space they see as a safe place to meet - to recount the history of their struggle. They explain archival photographs of worker actions outside the factories. The photographs, taken by workers themselves, have not been seen outside of China. “We had work stoppages and demanded medical compensation,” says Fu. In China, workers may be jailed for what the state calls disrupting the harmony of society. Fu holds back her tears as she recalls how someone threatened her for participating in the struggle. The faster-paced edits in the city hotel correspond to the rushed, modern, and cramped life. Interviews in the hotel room with Fu and Wu include cuts to angular close-ups of their bodies, which visually represent how women’s bodies have been compartmentalized, cut-up, as part of China’s economic development. In both urban and rural spaces though, the women are marginalized. Fu, from rural Hunan says, “I’m in the my thirties and am afraid to have children because I see my co-workers’ children are sick. A woman without children cannot stay in the village… so I had to return to the city where I got my occupational disease.”Although the women look physically healthy, cadmium has affected their internal organs and they experience chronic pain. In one scene, Min displays all the different medicines she takes for headaches, bone aches, and sore throats-- and those are only the ones she can afford. The last character the audience meets is Wu, who is suing GP. Her stack of documents chronicling correspondence with the factory and medicals records lay scattered on the white bed sheets in my hotel room as she flips through them, figuring out which ones to explain to the camera. Fear of someone overhearing the conversation from outside the hotel room however, interrupts her testimony as the camera nervously pans away. She ends by saying, “We lost our lives to the factory.”RED DUST is told through observational cinema style with the workers positioned as experts on their situation. The film also has self-reflexive elements in it such that the audience discovers cadmium poisoning along with the filmmaker. Given China's rising role in global economics and politics, many audiences are interested in learning more about the country with the world’s fastest growing economy. The documentary’s intimate moments with the characters make the film appeal to a broad range of audiences. Ultimately, the documentary humanizes Chinese workers and shows their activism, something that has not yet been seen in the media.
Genre: Educational, Asian
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