MEGALOPOLIS AND LABOR

1. Condensation: Five Video Works

Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph, 2002, 22 mins.
Factory, 2003, 30 mins.
Bade Area, 2005, 30 mins.
On Going, 2006, 30 mins.
The Route, 2006, 14 mins.

2002-2006, 126 mins
Director: Chen Chieh-jen
Mock-Documentaries

Chen is a former still photographer and installation artist who turned to filming performance art in these five pieces that are really mock documentaries: he stages non-actors in industrial and similar landscapes in Taiwan and creates abbreviated and almost frustratingly interrupted narratives about important social, economic, and political issues. He chronicles in effect the end of the industrial metropolis and the creation of the faceless megalopolis.

“Factory” is an ambitious interpretation of the end of industrial labor. Chen recruited former workers from an immense but abandoned textile factory and staged re-enactments of their work and artful variations of same. In one shot they are seated at their sewing machines as if the disappearance of their work over the last seven years had not happened. In a related shot they are face down on their sewing machine tables all covered with the same blanket as if they were taking naps or passing over collectively to some unknown dreamland.

The women workers were of course the victims of globalization: although low-wage Taiwan was the center of the global textile industry form the 1960s through the 1990s, other countries, especially China and other East Asian neighbors, undercut Taiwan’s production costs and the work migrated. For the film the workers first located then handled for the camera the paraphernalia of their old workstations left behind when the factory closed, but with some surprise they also picked up their old loudspeakers and posters they had created to protest the plant’s closing.

The most recent film, “The Route,” documents world-wide port workers’ union protests and demonstrations held in solidarity for fellow port workers; ironically none of these demos took place in Taiwan, but Chen nonetheless has Taiwanese laborers acting out the other demos.

Two other films also document abandoned labor centers: “On Going” cuts between a worker at a new office building and an abandoned factory, while “Bade Area” follows squatters at still another abandoned factory in the town of Bade. All of these factories have a stark, minimalist beauty to them, a beauty that in the hands of a different artist (the late Robert Smithson, for example, photographer of abandoned industrial cities of Northern New Jersey, among his other accomplishments) does not always reach the pitch of protest that seems inherent in Chen’s work.

The fifth is the only non-industrial piece,–“Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph”–about a famous 1904 photograph of the execution of a man under the torture known as “death by a thousand cuts.” The scene is eerily re-staged by Chen (himself the “victim”) as a tribute to what he calls his resistance of the “state of amnesia” in the Taiwanese “fast forgetting” culture. In this sequence, reminiscent of the exquisite torture of actress Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), Chen moves the end of the history of metropolis into the cinematic zone of eternal image-making.

YouTube:

Death By A Thousand Cuts – Taiwanese Video Art, At
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqqca2EmXa8 Sequences from Factory and Lingchi.

Other Websites:

http://www.asiasociety.org/arts/07_chen_chieh_jen.html Sequences from all five “Condensation” works.

For Further Reference:

Smith, Roberta. “Figures Moving as if in a Trance Across an Isolated, Lawless Island.” “New York Times,” 25 July 2007. Chen “makes his country feel like a lawless place suffused with corruption, paralysis and isolation” when he tries to make art of Taiwan’s history “without paralyzing the viewer.”

2. Diamonds From Sierra Leone

2005, 6 mins. B & W, USA
Producer: Kanye West
Online Musical Film (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgqd80026xU)

In this black and white music video Kanye West was one of the first rap artists to expose the world of blood diamonds; it begins with the text of his words: “Little is known of Sierra Leone and how it connects with the diamonds we own.” He inspired the the rappers’ mission for the film “Bling: A Planet Rock” mission to Sierra Leone to investigate abuses in the diamond industry.

The video opens in black and white documentary fashion in an underground (non-diamond?) mine where we see adults panning baskets and children wielding pickaxes. “We are the children of blood diamonds,” sings West, just before we cut to a diamond appraiser.

We follow West through what looks like a Middle European cityscape just before the camera cuts to a young white couple: he’s on his knees putting a diamond ring on her hand that begins to run blood with blood. West drives his DeLoreran through the streets until he is joined by the child miners in their loincloths. He crashes his car into a jewelry store, escaping with the children down the street: “Please purchase conflict-free diamonds” flashes across the screen after a remarkable montage of a statue of Christ with a sword, West playing two pianos at the church altar, and the children rushing down the center aisle.

West uses the lyrics from the title song (by Shirley Bassey) of the James Bond film, “Diamonds are Forever,” as an ironic counterpoint to the images of the child laborers.

3. Bordertown

Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava

Border culture throughout the world has more than its share of fascinating cinematic explorations. Director Gregory Nava (whose films include “Selena,” his first collaboration with a very young Jennifer Lopez) offers in “Bordertown” a remarkably daring, disturbing, and to a certain extent plausible story of the murders of (mostly) women workers from the maquiladoras that fuel the pre- and post-NAFTA economics of Mexico and the United States. Official estimates of the murdered and missing, mostly young, women are ridiculously low, as the police try to act as if they are not incompetent or paid off, even coming up at one point (in real life as well as the film) with a suspect, an Arab national, who they say killed them all. An unlikely story, as the toll reaches, by many estimates, more than 400.

Nava’s film is not simplistic politically, although the image of a lawless Mexican society has been standard cinematic fare for generations. Nonetheless, the factories create wealth for their American corporations—in this film, a TV and monitor manufacturer—and graft for the border rough boys; they also require round the clock shifts for the young women, most of whom has been forced from their rural homes because of poverty, crop failures, and forced buyouts of their families’ land.

The film offers one way in which so many youngsters could be kidnapped, raped, murdered, and disappeared: the buses that take the girls from the factories and dump them on the streets of Juarez often in the middle of the night. In a bar, strip club, and generally sleazoid culture, the film makes one bus driver the invisible kidnapper.

Nava packs it in: Jennifer Lopez plays an aspiring Mexican-American reporter for a Chicago newspaper, herself the child of migrant workers who were murdered (for organizing in the fields?). She had started in the business with Antonio Banderas who now runs a crusading newspaper and who is reluctant to help his old girlfriend out when she befriends an Indian worker who literally crawls out of the sandy grave her attackers bury her in. While we would expect the beautiful people (Lopez and Banderas) to get together again, she actually sleeps with a maquiladora director and dandy mainly to get information about one of the possible killers.

A convoluted plot to be sure, but a chillingly beautiful film about the edge cities that are a law unto themselves. The greenish tint over the massive maquiladora factory floor (where announcements like “Lines 1 and 3 are falling behind their quota. Accelerate production” are common) illuminates the streams of workers as the shifts change, while the fire that ravages the young woman’s favela is an inevitable punishment for one of her tormentors who she believes (literally) is the devil.

For Nava corporate greed, unfair NAFTA legislation, and cowardly American editors add up to one of the most disturbing whitewashes of our era. The film ends with one more body found, clothed in her blue factory smock.

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