Though I was raised in New Orleans, I was as surprised as anyone by sociologist David Redmon's remarkable Mardi Gras: Made in China, which won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the 2005 Florida Film Festival. Exposing far more than flesh, the movie reveals that almost all of the beads tossed in New Orleans during the carnival season are made by one factory in a tax-free "special economic zone" in Fuzhou, China. Teenage girls are shown working for slave wages in a punishing environment, all to make their factory boss a millionaire by creating an enticement for girls on the other side of the world to bare their breasts.
Opening Thursday, Feb. 9, at DMAC is a just-completed final cut that updates the film post-Katrina and reflects other subtle changes. There's more Mardi Gras history and added information on the economics in the United States and China, where the Tai Kuen Bead Factory is just one in a rising number of ventures fueled by young, underclass women who work in isolated factories to send money back to their home villages. This version of the film (Redmon's third, total another was shown at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival) is intended for theatrical release and a DVD that will feature additional footage.
I called Redmon in New York, where the young Texan now makes his home. He won't give his age because he doesn't want it to influence reactions to his work.
OW: Why another cut?
DR: Because I wasn't satisfied with the other versions; somehow there was something missing, some depth. That's why I added more about Ms. Pearl `a self-described "New Orleans bead whore" who loves parades and goes nuts catching throws; no nudity required`. The `Mardi Gras` stereotype is usually of young women who take their clothes off. I wanted to add Ms. Pearl, who was 55 when I shot her, who does not fit the stereotype of the Bourbon Street crowd.
At the end of the film, I ask her `on camera` if she knows what the film is about. She says she doesn't want to know. But she knows the beads come from China, and later she told me that she wished the workers in China could come visit her and that she wished she could go and visit them. She basically says what the film was trying to encompass, which is this idea about people being alienated from each other, but how they are connected by a foreign object even though the object takes on these different meanings. She was really creating an invitation for people to have dialogue, and that dialogue creates something more constructive than criticism. I tried to make an affirmative film.
OW: What were some of the other significant changes?
DR: It's kind of hard to answer, but in one way I think that I was hoping that the audience would feel more sympathetic toward Roger `Wong, owner of Tai Kuen Bead Factory`. So much of his self-worth and how he perceives himself is created only by whether people were happy with the beads he makes. And I found that to be sad in no way that he intends, but because that's what he passes along to the workers: "Americans are going to buy beads because they are good beads."
OW: In the scene where you follow one of the workers home during the factory's annual two-week closing, there seems to be love between her and her parents, though they clearly require her to go away and make money for them. Without the camera rolling, were the parents genuine?
DR: That's a good question. What happened was that the house you saw them in is really not their house. They were too embarrassed to take me to their own house. But there was no clear way for me to integrate that into the film. It would be too confusing to explain that it's actually the father's brother's house he is an engineer and sends them money.
The parents seemed nice they love their daughter. They had a lot of laughter together, and a lot of body language that suggested that. The father always had a smile on his face, even when I wasn't filming. At the same time, it is part of the collective consciousness of what is happening in China now with all of the migrants leaving to work in the factories and `daughters going away to work` is seen as favorable. Otherwise you stay behind and work in rural China. It is very isolated there, very bleak. `The daughter` wanted to leave for a reason … and she is motivated by the excitement of getting away.
OW: How did you ever get into China in the first place to shoot that footage inside a factory?
DR: It took a year to get inside their factory it was basically a mistake. I drove from Austin to New Orleans the first two times just trying to convince Dom `Carlone, owner of Accent Annex, which at the time of filming was the exclusive client of the Chinese factory` to let me interview him. When he agreed and I sat down to interview him, he wouldn't let the camera in. He finally said, "You can turn that camera on and interview me," and the tape didn't work. But he told me, "I'm not going to tell you who my supplier is in China, but if you can figure it out, I might call him and tell him about you wanting to interview him."
So after spending a month doing research, I narrowed the list down. On a whim, at midnight in Texas, I called Roger I bypassed Dom. I said, "Dom Carlone suggested that I call you and suggested that I come to your factory to film." He said, "Dom made me rich." He was assuming that Dom was my friend.
OW: Are you still in touch with Roger?
DR: He only returns my e-mails when he wants to. He's made it very clear that "I will contact you."
OW: I don't remember Ms. Pearl so much in the first cut of Mardi Gras: Made in China.
DR: You know, I just got back from New Orleans, shooting a film about Ms. Pearl. After Hurricane Katrina, she opens up her backyard and 14 people who are displaced have moved in. We're calling it 712 Alvar Street. When I've been filming this, I think about what someone told me, that this is so much like Survivor. And after a few months … things really do put them into that situation. They really do such cruel things to each other. It's beyond my understanding.
OW: What's your prediction for Mardi Gras this year, Feb. 28?
DR: Here are two things I know. This is the first year in which corporations are going to be able to advertise during Mardi Gras; floats are now allowed to have corporate sponsorship … in all of the krewes that want to. Second, I don't know how much time I'm going to shoot in the French Quarter, because I'll be seeing how they will be celebrating in other areas of town, like the Lower 9th Ward `devastated by Katrina`.
OW: What's your next project?
DR: Another documentary, Intimad (Intimacy), has been in the works for several years. It's about this young woman and her husband, and she makes Victoria's Secret bras in Mexico. It's about what is intimacy for a young family who makes intimate wear for this corporation that makes a business of intimacy. The conflict of the story is that `she` and her husband have to leave behind their 2-year-old with their grandmother to work and make money and build their own house. After filming for several years, we thought that they would return home and reunite with their own daughter. But there's a firstname.lastname@example.org