The Narrative’s The Thing: An Interview with Micha X. Peled
by Cynthia Lucia
Although when he spoke with Cineaste, documentary filmmaker Micha X. Peled never referenced Hamlet’s words about the play devised to entrap his murderous uncle, the filmmaker did, nevertheless, assert the importance of the [inter]play—of narrative, character, and emotion—as the thing wherein to catch the conscience and the consciousness of his viewers. Peled’s films, and particularly his “Globalization Trilogy,” are deeply political in their examination of economic imbalance and overt exploitation of the poor and the powerless by multibillion- dollar corporations. Never one-note exposés, however, his films also are nuanced studies of the people and situations he chooses to film. By humanizing and bringing an emotional dimension to circumstances about which most viewers have some knowledge, Peled hopes to mobilize and has been quite successful in doing so, as his Website (www.teddybearfilms.com) would seem to suggest, with its multiple links to activist organizations working to address and alleviate the injustices his films expose.
Born in Israel and educated both there and in the United States, Peled lives in San Francisco, although his work takes him around the globe—whether when researching and shooting films or screening them at festivals where they frequently win awards, among them the International Documentary Association Humanitas Award for the third and most recent of his Globalization Trilogy, Bitter Seeds (2011). That film also won the International Documentary Film Festival Green Screen Award in Amsterdam and similar awards in Korea and Berlin, as well as the Oxfam Global Justice Award. Peled’s most accomplished film to date in terms of content, narrative, visual, and sound design, Bitter Seeds, examines the impact of globalization on farmers in the Vidarbha region of India, exposing conditions that have prompted the suicides of more than a quarter million farmers, with one suicide occurring every half hour. When the United States forced the World Trade Organization (WTO) to open its doors to Monsanto seeds, produced by the world’s largest biotech company, less expensive conventional seeds were driven from the market. Already poor, cotton farmers have been forced to purchase Monsanto’s hybrid seeds which, although resistant to the boll weevil, are highly susceptible to destructive mealy bug infestations and require more fertilizer and water than traditional seeds, creating an impossible situation for farmers who, already deeply in debt, cannot afford irrigation systems, nor the additional pesticides and fertilizer required. Their crop inevitably fails, producing far too little to financially break even, let alone to feed their families and pay off mounting debts. Those farmers with daughters of marrying age face even greater financial pressure in their need to provide dowries in order to ensure suitable marriages. Farmers unable to scrape together such dowries face great shame—another factor motivating the massive number of suicides.
Peled structures Bitter Seeds around the daily routines of two characters—Manjusha Amberwar, the daughter of a suicide victim, and Ram Krishna, a farmer living in the same village whose daughter is of marrying age. Manjusha rejects the idea of marriage instead wishing to pursue a career in journalism, a path departing from tradition, which few of the villagers, including her mother, understand. She further wants to bear witness to the farmers’ plight through her writing and does so by interviewing village farmers, wives, and elders and by attempting to publish her story in a regional newspaper. Manjusha speaks with Ram Krishna and his wife, who also are subjects of Peled’s documentary in their own right, as they struggle with both their crop and arranging for their eldest daughter’s marriage. “Love marriages” bring shame to households that depend upon an arranged marriage for economic survival, yet impoverished farmers like Ram Krishna strain to offer even modestly attractive dowries. As Manjusha attends classes and conducts interviews, Krishna sows seeds, nurtures his crop, and meets with a prospective father and son-in-law to negotiate his daughter’s dowry. Peled allows the slow rhythms of village life to unfold, capturing its traditions, including the annual bull festival celebrating the beasts that pull the plows. Shot composition, lighting, and pacing are powerfully lyrical as the planting and growing seasons begin and progress. Viewers hope for rain as Ram Krishna does and feel his defeat and despair when mealy bugs infest his crop. Of course, those shared emotions can never be the same, for Krishna’s very life sits in the balance, yet the film forges strong connections that Peled says he hopes will propel his viewers into action.
Although Peled was unable to gain access to Monsanto executives, he does interview the Monsanto representative working in a nearby town, and he films the traveling Monsanto seed salesman as he sells the annual supply to farmers who have no other option. By film’s end, we have witnessed the unfortunate suicide of a farmer who consumes a fatal dose of insecticide, as have so many other farmers before him, and we are left with less than hopeful feelings about Ram Krishna’s survival in light of his meager harvest. On a more optimistic note, Manjusha remains undeterred in her goal to become a journalist and to tell the story of her village, ironically made possible, one might speculate, by the death of her own father and the traditional restrictions his presence very likely would have imposed. The convergence of economic and gender imperatives resonate powerfully.
A young woman also is the protagonist in China Blue (2005), the second documentary of the trilogy, this one examining labor conditions in a blue-jeans factory in urban Shaxi in Mainland China. The sixteen-year-old Jasmine, like so many other girls her age, travels alone—in a re-enacted sequence—from her rural farming village in Central China to Shaxi in the South, hoping to find factory work that will help support her family. Like Manjusha, Jasmine is drawn to words and their power to reveal and restore—she keeps a journal and enjoys writing stories—qualities making both young women perfect subjects for the films. Also a character in China Blue is Lifeng Factory owner Mr. Lam, who boasts of his “relaxed” management style and his factory’s reputation as one of the best—he never is late on an order and his workers’ conditions are better than most. What Peled’s camera reveals, however, are bogus inspections, workers paid less than minimum wage, the absence of overtime pay, and a seven-day work week. The young women newly hired miss their families but have neither the time nor the means to visit them. That Western companies collude is unmistakable in scenes with factory tours by company representatives who contract with the factory. As in Bitter Seeds, Peled compellingly captures the atmosphere of the factory and especially of the girls’ dormitory, where the young women express a mixture of excited liberation and timid yearning for home. Following Orchid, another young factory worker on a rare trip back to her village with the fiancé she wants to introduce to her parents, the film captures the family warmth she is missing.
Shooting in China illegally, Peled managed to gain remarkable access, often through sly subterfuge, as he explains in our interview. That he began shooting with another protagonist a year before filming with Jasmine, having been forced to destroy the footage when authorities arrested and threatened the family of one of his Chinese crew members, seems only to have bolstered his determination to tell this story of globalization, in which most Americans also collude when purchasing clothing produced in factories like Lifeng. “Under the name of free trade or some other slogan that sounds good,” Peled explained during our discussion, “international trade agreements are providing the freedom to pillage the natural and labor resources of Third World countries and harness it to the quarterly growth goals of these companies,” enabling them to set low prices that appeal to Western consumers.
This is no truer than in the case of Walmart, the subject of the first film in Peled’s Globalization Trilogy, Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town (2001). Set much closer to home in Ashland, Virginia, where the retail giant is attempting to open a megastore, the film records the debates that ensued. A one-hour documentary made for television, Store Wars lacks the visual power of the later films shot for the big screen, but it nevertheless brings us close to those citizens who band together to form the Pink Flamingos, an activist, anti-Walmart group. The film also brings us close to the mayor and several town-council people who, after much debate, ultimately vote in favor of allowing Walmart in. One does sense in all of this, however, that the presence of Peled’s camera plays a role in the occasional posturing recorded during public discussions. Quite surprisingly, Walmart allowed Peled access to its lawyer and several administrators, including the representative who comes to town to make his case to the citizens and the council. The film captures the politics and atmosphere of the small town (population 7,200, as the town’s welcome placard announces), in which people are friendly, yet in which clear class and racial divisions exist.
The personal and the political intersect most directly for the filmmaker, himself, in his first feature documentary, Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin? (1993), and in You, Me, Jerusalem (1995). Peled uses his mother’s background as a German Jew who escaped the Nazis, when in her twenties, to examine German-Jewish relations some fifty years after the Holocaust. The narrative hinges on the question the film’s title poses. Produced by Peled, You, Me, Jerusalem, codirected by Peled and Georges Khleifi, is noted by several sources as the first-ever Israeli-Palestinian coproduction. And, as in China Blue, in his documentary short, Inside God’s Bunker (1994), Peled gains access through subterfuge to an extremist group of West Bank Israeli settlers who previously had never permitted cameras into their homes.
In his occasionally crafty methods of gaining access as a means of exposing and arriving at larger truths, Peled is perhaps a bit like Hamlet who was driven to expose wrongdoing. Unlike the indecisive prince, however, Peled very decisively carries out his mission as a filmmaker—to educate and to “pass the baton,” as he says, to organizations and activists who will attempt to resolve the problems, to find ways of confronting the seemingly monolithic multinational corporate forces that relentlessly expand and exploit.
Cineaste first met Peled in 2012 at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, where Bitter Seeds was screening, and met up with him again for a more formal discussion in April 2013 in New York City, where Bitter Seeds was shown at the Independent Film Center (IFC) theater as part of its “Stranger than Fiction” program.—Cynthia Lucia
Cineaste: What drew you to filmmaking?
Micha X. Peled: I started filmmaking in the Seventies, and when I came out of film school I was aware of only two options: to go to Hollywood or to do television journalism, because I also studied that. Hollywood never intrigued me—I’m not interested in entertaining per se. We didn’t have the genre of the indie narrative film or really the indie documentary at that point. Of course, we had people like Frederick Wiseman and Robert Drew, but they weren’t widely known and that approach didn’t seem to loom as an option.
I interned at NBC News during the Republican convention of 1976 when Ford was nominated and ran against Carter. As we did interviews with all of these leading Republicans, I realized very quickly that I would be going into a field and making television programs that I wouldn’t even want to watch because of the superficiality of it all. I didn’t really know where to turn and moved away from the whole field. I just kind of meandered through life during an era when we thought that to have a career was for bourgeois squares. I used to say that I didn’t have much in the bank, but I was rich in life experiences.
Cineaste: Why documentary in particular?
Peled: I’ve always been a political animal since childhood, and so at thirty-three, when I was given an opportunity to work for a nuclear freeze organization that actually paid me to do political activism, I jumped on it. Roughly around the same time, I got introduced to the consumer-level video cameras that were coming out. I befriended a guy who ran a Native American arts program in San Francisco and, with grant money he received, we made a short documentary that was shown at several community screenings in the city. The film, called A Voice in the Mission, was about a Latino theater group. At a time when most of Latin America was dominated by dictatorships, this group was putting on plays that were censored in their own countries. The actors were not professionals—they didn’t make a living from it and that’s what I liked. One woman was selling stamps in the post office during the day, and she would come out of the dressing room a princess, or a guy who drove a school bus was a clown onstage. That was really nice. At the time there was a Latino filmmaking group in town called Cineaction, and they came to a screening and it so happened that the California Council for the Humanities, which was funding them, also came. I got a little bit of recognition and a taste for more. I also discovered that I am primarily a storyteller.
Cineaste: As I look at the three films in your globalization trilogy, moving from Store Wars to China Blue and then Bitter Seeds, I feel you’re increasingly honing your narrative skills and your attention to character.
Peled: I do think I’m getting better at my craft, but there’s also a prosaic reason for the improvement, which is that the Walmart movie is only one hour in length because that’s what my ITVS contract called for. It was my first ITVS contract and I didn’t dare to think bigger than that. When I see the film today, I feel there was really a ninety-minute feature there. I know the scenes that never made it into the film and also feel there isn’t a lot of breathing space in the film, which is the reason why the characters aren’t more fleshed out.
Cineaste: While Store Wars obviously doesn’t embrace the idea of Walmart, it nevertheless gives voice to the other side of the argument—the creation of jobs, the issue of economic class and Walmart’s pricing.
Peled: I feel it’s really important to get the “bad guys” into the film. I worked very hard to convince Walmart to participate, and they do. We see their annual shareholders’ meeting and the guy whose job it is to sweet talk the town into letting Walmart in. We see the lawyer who represents them, the video they produced only for the five members of the town council, and the full-page ad they took in the local paper. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder right now in the United States to get any major corporation to participate in any media they can’t control. They basically assume that any independent filmmaker is out to get them—and they’re right enough of the time about that to figure, why take the risk?
In Bitter Seeds I’d have preferred to humanize Monsanto because that’s a lot more interesting. One of my initial ideas was that, if I could have had access to a Monsanto vice president in charge of India, I could create some kind of parallel between him and his family and the farmers and their families and have him fly to India where the two would intersect—I would have loved to do that. But there’s no way that Monsanto ever would agree to it. In the film there is, at least, an interview with the Monsanto guy working in India.
In China Blue Mr. Lam, the manager of the factory, is very much a character and we see his point of view. Although we see him enjoying his big meals, we also see that Western buyers are squeezing him—that it’s like a jungle and everybody is on the food chain, with a predator, who is always bigger. Having him in the film makes it so much richer, less one-dimensional. I guess I feel that it’s so obvious who is right and who is wrong that I can let the other side fully represent itself.
Cineaste: I feel the ambiguity, especially in Bitter Seeds with the man who travels to the farms to sell the seeds. He is part of their world and culture. I wonder whether he blatantly lies to the farmers or whether he, himself, does not know the full information or the answers. He himself seems to be struggling to survive.
Peled: Well, I think life is ambiguous, but I also think that most of our problems are not the result of greedy, corrupt, cold-hearted individuals, but of systems that have been created. But human beings have created those systems, so we’re not talking about forces of nature. You can have a lot of good people, but if they’re working in the service of a corporation that grows on the back of impoverishing farmers, then it doesn’t matter if that guy has to make his house payments—he does, but at the end of the day it doesn’t mitigate the harm done by his actions and the actions of his company.
Cineaste: One is left with the feeling in all three films that there is a kind of downward spiral. Those people at the low level of the economic chain embrace Walmart, for instance, because they don’t know the full impact of employment for twenty-eight hours a week nor the impact of smaller businesses, where they potentially could have been employed for forty hours a week, being forced to close. The same is true for the farmers in Bitter Seeds who can no longer purchase conventional seeds since they’re no longer available. What is to be done at this point when the system is so entrenched and so much larger than any one person?
Peled: I can speak specifically on each topic and what can be done, but I see myself firmly in the role of filmmaker rather than activist. Although there is some overlap, at the end of the day, I see my films as batons that I can pass on, and the next person in the relay is the activist. When I worked for the nuclear freeze campaign in the Eighties, we had the slogan, “Educate and Activate”—educate people about the nuclear arms race and then activate them to do something about it. Even though, mostly, I want to tell stories in my films, I also am educating people. I want to pass the issues on to the activists, to the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Practically every day we’re getting either an email or posting on Facebook from someone who wants to donate money to the farmers in India, so we connect them with organizations, but I can’t get more involved personally, that’s not my role.
That said, I clearly believe that films have the potential to broadly and deeply influence society. If one looks at the history of social change, it usually is brought about through ideas, and is triggered by a small group of determined people who get together and decide to take action. Films, along with books and recently the Internet, have been the main disseminators of new ideas. By the very communal nature of watching films with a group gathered for that purpose in one room, films have been used as organizing tools by activist groups. Even when watched solo on a DVD or a computer screen, they still have the power to raise awareness, educate, and activate. Some of the most long-admired works of art carry a clear message—Picasso’s “Guernica,” for instance. The danger is that when a film becomes too overtly message-driven, it is reduced from a work of art to a work of propaganda. In my own work, I try to reach a broad audience through storytelling, not through facts and opinions. But I certainly hope that after seeing the film, viewers will want to know more about the topic and research it further, and then possibly choose to take action. It usually takes me three or four years to make a film, and I certainly want to see it generating debate, and possibly influencing public policy.
Cineaste: Let’s turn to a discussion of each of the trilogy films in greater detail because, taken together, they resonate in interesting ways. In Store Wars I’m wondering about the group in Ashland called the “Pink Flamingos” who organized to oppose Walmart. To what degree did they see your presence as a way of advocating for and advancing their cause? Did they see you as a collaborator?
Peled: I was clearly friendlier with them than with the other side, not just in terms of making the film but also in terms of hanging out with them. I hung out with the mayor—I made a point of that. He was what you might call a terrible host—he would bring a bag of chips and a six pack and we’d sit, and his wife would come in and say, “What is it, Tommy? You can’t offer him more than this?” He’s like a boy who doesn’t know any better. But I was very careful about not being seen around town as the pal of the Pink Flamingos. For example, they always offered to put me up, and I would say, “No, I’m staying at the inn until the filming is over.” The Walmart lawyer who’s in the film contacted me after the film came out, thanking me for its balance and fairness. I was so surprised and delighted that I asked if he would mind putting that in writing on his letterhead, and he said he’d be happy to. He was very much a Southern gentleman while also being Jewish—you know, “Shalom, y’all.” [Laughs] He sent it to me, and maybe that protected me from a Walmart lawsuit—who knows?
To this day, I’m still in friendly contact with some of the Pink Flamingos. I felt very welcomed by the town. When China Blue came out, we did a premiere in Ashland as part of a fundraiser for the local college.
Cineaste: You mention the mayor, and there is something about his being as young as he is that gives me the feeling that he’s a kind of puppet mayor who maybe was elected because everyone knew him as a nice kid growing up in Ashland that the powerful people understood they could manipulate. Jim Moore, on the council, seems to have the real power.
Peled: That’s the level of storytelling I like—we’re getting into ambiguities and into human nature, into elements that have nothing to do with the political issues. For me, getting into the personalities is what makes it a story, a film, rather than a news report. For a discerning viewer, the films are much richer because of these questions that come up that you can speculate about or analyze. The more you see the characters in various situations, the more you begin to get a psychological profile.
Cineaste: Rosie, the town historian in Store Wars, seems to see those against Walmart as the “born heres” and those in favor as the “came heres.” I see the division as being more about race and social class. For instance, in the café owned by one of the Pink Flamingos where they all hang out, I never see black or working class people. Rosie and the others seem not to acknowledge this. I’m curious because Franklin Jackson, the bus driver and only black town councilman, is in favor of Walmart, as is the woman whose husband and son both work there. And then there’s the church scene with the black congregation attending a meeting. I wasn’t quite sure how that fit in. Can you talk about that scene and also about how you saw the dividing line on the issue?
Peled: I like whenever possible to include what we might think of as a “subplot,” which always enriches the plot of the film. Coming from outside the South, I very quickly was made aware of the racial divide that exists, and I wasn’t going to leave that out. And, of course, I noticed right away that all of the activists are white, and I wanted to get to the bottom of that and to understand it. Franklin Jackson represents the black community as a town councilman and makes the point that even if they’re bad jobs, the Walmart jobs still are jobs and the people he represents want them, and they also want to shop wherever it’s cheapest. The minister of the black church was very active in the community, and when he told me that he wanted to bring up the issue with his parish, I said, “Great—I want to film it!”
Cineaste: So his calling the meeting was not prompted by your presence?
Peled: No. It’s a church in which they talk about affairs of the community. He considers himself one of the spokespeople for the black people in the town, and he comes before the town council to speak for his community.
Cineaste: Do you feel that your presence in any way inhibited the people attending the church meeting? I ask because so few people, other than the minister, had very much to say.
Peled: It’s interesting that you pick up on that, in the sense that I kind of parachuted into the meeting, set up my camera, got all my angles, the range of opinions, and then I left—as opposed to my interactions with the Pink Flamingos and the mayor who got used to me because of the time I spent with them. It’s quite possible that people at the meeting were thinking that everyone watching television would hear what they’re thinking and they would possibly regret it later. Some people are more careful in that way.
Cineaste: A written title in the film suggests that those opposed to Walmart were more organized than those in favor. Did Jackson as a town councilman make any attempt to organize the pro-Walmart group?
Peled: No. That actually brings up another point. Sometimes when I’m making a film there are levels of complexity that I don’t want to get into because they’ll move too far astray from the topic. In this case, I found that Jackson was under a lot of criticism from the black community for reasons having nothing to do with Walmart. He wasn’t going to run again because he knew he wouldn’t get re-elected—he had his own issues to worry about. So he didn’t have much political capital to spare in getting people organized. I didn’t want to get into that.
Cineaste: And you only had an hour to work with because of the television airing. Did you stick around long enough to see the consequences of Walmart ultimately moving in?
Peled: I was no longer shooting at that stage, but I do know that a number of local businesses indeed have closed, though in some cases it took a few years because there would be, for instance, a hardware store whose owner was getting on in years but who thought his children would take over the business. There wasn’t much of a business for them to take over and he couldn’t really sell it, so he would close it when he retired. There were many cases like that. The café reinvented itself as a live music venue, but Mary, the woman who owned it and was so active in the Pink Flamingos, sold it. She now works in the school system. So it definitely impacted the town. The people who were part of the Pink Flamingos created a local movement that goes beyond the Walmart issue and have been running the town council ever since.
Cineaste: In filming China Blue you’ve admitted that you were shooting illegally—is that because you saw no other option?
Peled: I couldn’t have made the film I’ve made with permission. The process in China is that you apply, you tell them exactly what you want to do, and they may well give approval, but that means that someone from the government propaganda department is with you all the time—from the moment you land until you leave. They would have found a factory for me to film and it would have been very controlled. They would have allowed me to interview workers but with their supervisor sitting right there and, if I wanted to go to a village, they would have arranged for a worker to take me, and we would have seen a very nice house, with the father probably having won an award as best pig grower in the county, and everyone would have been very happy and satisfied. It would have been that kind of a film.
Cineaste: I’m surprised that the factory manager, Mr. Lam, gave you access and that Jenny, the factory spokesperson, allowed you in with your camera.
Peled: I told him that I wanted to make a film about him, about the first generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who didn’t go to business school, because they didn’t have them in Communist China. I said, “You’re hard working, you’re taking risks, and you’re creating employment.” I also told him that I was talking to many factories in the area and that I would film at the one where I would be given twenty-four-hour access without a manager looking over my shoulder. I said I would also film how employees were benefitting from what the manager was doing. “We’re looking at many factories,” I told him, and said I couldn’t guarantee his would be chosen. When he asked whether I had a permit, I said this was the research phase and I didn’t need a permit—that would happen when we had a big camera and crew but now there were only two of us.
You need to keep two things in mind. In China, especially ten years ago, there was not yet the notion of media, of television that would be investigative or anti-Establishment. They didn’t know about that because all of the media was and is controlled by the state. Secondly, in his universe he doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. There’s a moment in the film when I interview a labor expert who says this factory is better than most. So, from Mr. Lam’s point of view, he feels that it’s fine for me to come in and film anything I want. My workers, he would say, do not need a permit to leave the compound whereas in many places they do. In many factories they search workers when they leave to see that they’re not smuggling things out.
Cineaste: So, on some level is he the “relaxed manager” he claims to be when you interview him? Is he, comparatively speaking, a good, even a humane manager?
Peled: I don’t see that it matters. We see that he, for example, is a lover of the arts; we see him doing calligraphy; I enjoyed talking to him—he was a gracious host to me. He may love nature, he may be a good father to his children, but what matters is how he treats his workers. It turns out that he was violating every one of China’s labor laws. That’s what matters. The workers didn’t get one rest day a week; they didn’t get paid overtime; they didn’t get paid minimum wage. This is what matters to them.
Cineaste: What are the labor laws? Are they enforced? We hear from Dr. Liu Kaiming of the Institute of Contemporary Observation—a name alone that makes you ask what, exactly, it means in the national context—about inspections in which a false front is presented.
Peled: China is a signatory to the ILO—the International Labor Organization—that has international standards demanding certain minimal conditions such as a minimum wage, one rest day per week, and the ability for workers to organize. China has many laws on the books that are within what’s expected of an ILO member, but none are enforced, and certainly there are no labor unions in China. They claim they have one, a national federation of workers, but they don’t do collective bargaining of any kind. They organize a newsletter for the workers; they may have a picnic sometimes, but that’s about it. The workers have no collective bargaining. If you remember there’s a man in the film who’s trying to organize workers. If he’s caught, he’s sent, without due process, to a remote re-education camp where he shovels manure or whatever they let him do. So it’s definitely repressive.
Mr. Lam explained to me, but was careful to do it when the camera wasn’t running, that the labor inspectors come once a month. He’s always notified in advance and knows who the inspectors are, the names of their wives and children. When they arrive, they find a pile of jeans for their families and they sit in his office and have tea and exchange chit-chat, and then they go for lunch—a fantastic banquet. I’ve been to quite a few of those lunches myself with him. The restaurants have a second floor with private rooms and labor is so cheap that there are two servers per diner, so that your every need is answered. And so the inspectors drink and eat and sign off at the end of the day without ever going on the floor with the workers.
Cineaste: So these inspectors go in knowing that they really are not going to inspect? That it’s all a game?
Peled: But they are not to be confused with inspectors sent by Western countries—let’s say by The Gap—to all the factories that contract with them. I have to say that my information on this is not up to date. It’s been a few years since I made the film, and some things have changed and may have improved a lot. But the factories became very adept at creating a Potemkin village kind of scene. The factories have double books of accounting—the real one, and the fake ones they show inspectors, books which show the workers getting paid minimum wage, overtime, etc. They train the workers with a kind of cheat sheet about the answers they should give inspectors about their hours, being paid overtime, and so forth. They tell the workers that if they don’t give these answers, the companies will take away the contracts and the workers will be out of their jobs. That’s a good enough incentive, so the workers usually cooperate.
When I was researching the film, I was here in New York and spoke to a professor at CUNY’s Baruch College who was in charge of these inspections for some of the major retailers here. He said, “Oh we know what’s going on in the factories because we select workers at random. We talk to them in a room without any of their managers present and ask them questions and cross reference their answers with what other workers are saying.” And from a Western perspective it’s reasonable. But all the workers already knew the “correct” answers to all these questions by heart. When I was over there, I heard that the factories hire consultants who charge something like five thousand U.S. dollars to ensure that they pass the inspection—not to help them comply with the rules—but to pass. In China there is still very much the mentality of “us and them” when it comes to the West, based on a hundred years of grievances. I didn’t see qualms about doing what is necessary to keep the factories running and the orders coming in.
The buyers also demand very cheap prices. There’s no way they could produce the goods that cheaply if the factories were to comply with the regulations, so there’s a real sense that they’re in cahoots. My understanding is only as a filmmaker, but my sense is that it’s hard for the big retailers to find factories, in the first place, that they want to work with—that are reliable, that don’t make mistakes about sizes, that deliver on time, that meet with the designated stitching and style requirements. Once the retailers find factories that are good and that they want to work with, they don’t want to find them in violation; they don’t want the inspectors to be too harsh or precise. It’s a whole system in which everybody is colluding. The Gap is a retailer whose reports I’ve read—and again this information is a few years old—but they admitted that something like a third of their factories were in violation. But what do they do? They don’t discontinue the contract; they give the factory something like six months to improve, then they inspect again.
I once saw workers handling hazardous materials—they were putting soles on shoes with toxic glue. The managers gave workers gloves and masks on the day the inspectors came, but on the next day, there were no gloves or masks, and I asked about it. They said that the workers don’t like wearing them because it slows them down, which is very clever because the workers get paid by the piece, so they’re willing to do without masks and gloves. Also the workers are not making informed decisions—they don’t know about all of the hazards. It’s the sort of thing where twenty years later they get cancer. The BBC once did an interview with somebody from the Chinese Embassy in London, and they were mouthing off about inspections and conditions. I wish there had been an encounter between us because it would have been very easy for me to demolish everything he was saying.
Cineaste: In China Blue you have Mr. Lam on camera, as well as Jasmine, the main character who is a recently hired worker, and her friends Orchid and Li Ping, along with the man from the Institute of Contemporary Observation. To what extent are they or might they be at risk if the film is shown in China?
Peled: I met Jasmine only after a year into the filming because earlier a Chinese woman on my crew was arrested. The police threatened her family and we had to destroy all of the footage. So I was very concerned about this issue. In order to protect Jasmine and the other workers, I went to the factory owner and said that I would like them to draw up a contract with the employees who are in my film, so that they know they were getting paid some sort of compensation from me. But that was a ruse. The real reason was that I wanted the girls to have some sort of documentation verifying that they were told by the factory to be in the film, that they were just following instructions. They drew up the contract; the girls went to the administration building and signed it. I made sure the girls had a copy of it, so that, in the future, they could say, “Hey, we were instructed to do this.”
Cineaste: Could Mr. Lam, even though he is part of the system, also have been at risk, then?
Peled: The film was shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Chinese press wrote about it. There’s a paper called Daily Apple, which is like The New York Post—they love to sensationalize things and take them out of context or only present one aspect of a larger issue. They portrayed the film as an exposé of this one factory in violation of the rules as opposed to presenting it as endemic with this as one example and, in fact, not acknowledging that it is one of the better factories. And so Mr. Lam got into some trouble. The authorities demanded an explanation about why he cooperated in helping give his country a bad reputation. I don’t know the details, but this is a man who knows how to navigate the system, and how much to pay to whom—so he got out of it.
Cineaste: Was Jasmine’s journal something she was doing independent of you or did you ask her to keep it?
Peled: No, that was one of the things she told us she liked to do. We did the film with another girl at first, but then we came back to the factory and asked the supervisor to give us the names of workers they just hired, and there were three young women we saw as candidates. For three days we filmed all three of them before selecting one. Jasmine was so interesting. She told us she has this little notebook and she likes writing in her spare time.
Cineaste: That’s great.
Peled: That’s what I thought.
Cineaste: By and large, Jasmine seems, despite the conditions in which she is working, relatively happy and resilient. I wonder whether her journey from the village to the city—and eventually the factory—might well have been a largely positive thing.
Peled: In many ways it was. She was sixteen years old. She had a new life away from her parents, away from the village—in those circumstances you think anything is possible. You have no idea what’s awaiting you—that you’re going to be worked to the bones. It’s kind of like a summer camp in a way because you’re with a group of people your age and it’s exciting, there’s no parent telling you what to do. There is a supervisor, but still you’re in a room and you talk. You certainly don’t miss privacy because you never had that before, but then, with time, the oppressive conditions take hold, because you can’t go home when you miss your parents.
Cineaste: I wondered about the wages, which, I read, are equivalent to six cents an hour in the United States. What does that mean in Jasmine’s world? What can she buy with it? Orchid, for instance, talks about sending some of her earnings home, but how would that be possible?
Peled: Jasmine was new and wasn’t making as much as Orchid; she wasn’t producing as much per hour. They’re being paid more now, considerably, and many companies have since moved to other countries where it’s cheaper to produce, like Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh. China has become more prosperous, so wages have increased. But at the time when I was filming and at that meager salary, the workers were nevertheless becoming the main income source for their families, earning more than their fathers did as farmers. If they were frugal, they could spend very little. Their food was deducted from their salary, as well as the electricity—but it’s all very, very cheap. So they really had to buy very little—only toothpaste, toiletries. But still, their working conditions were extremely exploitative.
Cineaste: I know the film is banned in China but I imagine someone must have seen it.
Peled: Recently it had its first showing in China, but yes, it had been banned for a long time. Obviously, the Chinese authorities have seen it. The world premiere was at the Toronto Film Festival by chance on the very same day that the president of China was visiting. I sent him a letter of invitation asking him to come as my guest. I circulated it to the Toronto press and the The Globe & Mail ran it, so I’m sure somebody from the Chinese Embassy attended—that’s their job.
Cineaste: How did you get the interviews with people from other factories?
Peled: I wasn’t able to film in other factories, but there is a woman who had been a foreman and lost her job when she became pregnant. She talks about how she would knock workers on the head with a screwdriver to wake them up, and she demonstrates how they use the clothespins to keep the workers’ eyes open. She was really angry that she couldn’t get her job back, so she was willing to talk.
Cineaste: Getting back to the contract you drew up with the women—did you pay them as the contract claimed? I know of other documentary filmmakers who do pay their subjects, especially when their time in front of the camera takes them away from their work.
Peled: We definitely have a tradition in this country of not paying people because you don’t want to turn them into actors in some way. In Store Wars I didn’t pay anybody, but the difference financially between the workers in China and me is so huge that I did pay, and I was also pulling them off the production line, so they were losing some income, though clearly I was paying them much more than they were earning in the factory. I just felt that it would not be right not to pay them. And the same thing is true in Bitter Seeds with the farmer, Ram Krishna. How could I not give him something when the budget for the film crew’s lunch for a single day could feed his family for a week? I never heard anybody challenge this by suggesting that we were getting the wrong story because we paid people.
Cineaste: Paying seems the ethical thing to do. The relationship between you as filmmaker and Manjusha in Bitter Seeds is interesting because in some ways you become a mentor by encouraging her to pursue her desire to be a journalist through asking her to interview the famers who are her neighbors.
Peled: My associate producer and translator in India is a journalist, a woman who writes for the English language press. So right away she told Manjusha she could help her with writing her article by looking at a draft and so forth. We found that she was not taking as much advantage of this opportunity as she could have. It’s true that we did nudge Manjusha a little bit. When she was sitting down to do her interviews, we would ask her, “So what are you going to do with all of these interviews?” And it wasn’t really clear to her; we asked if she would try to get them published, but she never really thought it through. So we asked her, “Where can you publish it?” She told us about the regional newspaper that had an office in town—and we continued prompting her saying, “Well maybe you want to go and talk to them.” At that point, I had to make sure she’d go and talk to them when I was there with my crew, and that, when she knocked on the door, somebody would be there to answer. There was a lot we had to coordinate.
Cineaste: Did you speak to the newspaper editor first, to let him know you’d be coming with a camera crew?
Peled: Yes, but we also told him not to be nice to her on our account; we told him to respond to her as he normally would—if he wanted to grill her on something or be tough on her in some way, that was his prerogative. I was delighted when I found out later, after their interview had been translated, that the editor asked her about her father because I was looking for an opportunity to put the information about her father’s suicide into the film. I didn’t want to do it at the beginning when she was introducing herself but later on when it would provide another layer of motivation for her.
Cineaste: In the marketing of Bitter Seeds, you ask whether Ram Krishna, her uncle, will be next—the next farmer to commit suicide in response to mounting bills and a harvest that produces very little. Is that tagline something you invented after making the film or did you have it in mind from the start?
Peled: First, he’s not literally her uncle. In India and many other Asian societies, you call an adult “uncle” or “aunty.” There’s just no way of translating it more accurately. When I was thinking about the film, as I always do about the narrative arc and where the drama is, I knew that one way of getting into the story was to follow a candidate for suicide. However, I knew from the beginning that this farmer would be so poor that we’d be paying him. So I knew in fact that my being there and my connection to him would pretty much guarantee that he would not commit suicide, at least during the time of production. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I do hear that Ram Krishna has committed suicide—he fits the demographic. But, yes, it is a tagline, and there are certain editing choices along the way that make you wonder if he may commit suicide and worry about it.
Cineaste: When I saw the movie the first time and we see a farmer’s funeral, I thought it was his, but on second viewing realized it wasn’t.
Peled: We have footage that’s not in the film of him sleeping and his wife sitting there looking at him, and you could easily think she’s sitting over a dead body. I toyed with the idea of using that footage followed by the funeral footage, but that would have been too much manipulation.
Cineaste: Have you shown the film to villagers in the community?
Peled: Yes, and it was the most amazing series of film showings I’ve ever done—showing the film to people who have never seen a film before on a big screen, who never have seen a documentary before—let alone about their own lives—and traveling from village to village with a projector, two poles, and a sheet.
Cineaste: How did Manjusha and others in it feel about the film?
Peled: Manjusha had nothing but good things to say about the film. At one screening she actually helped us to interview the farmers after the screening. Ram Krishna’s son-in-law demanded that we not show the film, particularly the dowry scene in which his father bargains with Ram Krishna. I agreed to fast forward through that scene but the son-in-law then demanded that I not show the film at all, threatening to turn Ram Krishna’s daughter out from his home. Others who knew him assured me it would be all right, but we had a technical problem that, in the end, made the screening impossible, which did sometimes happen. I did send vans to transport those who wanted to see it to a nearby village where we were showing it the next day.
I brought some money from the states from viewers who wanted to help the family, and at first I thought I’d divide it between Manjusha and Ram Krishna’s family. But when I heard that Manjusha has not applied herself to her studies as much as one would have hoped, I ended up giving it to Ram Krishna and his family. She did not take her exams in the last semester, and I was worried about that.
Cineaste: I wondered about the big family dinner Ram Krishna’s family has after the sowing of the seeds and about how much of that may have been staged or the degree to which you may have helped supply them with food—it seemed both natural but also done for the sake of the film.
Peled: You’re right. It was done for the sake of the film. We actually filmed a few dinners, and that one is the only one that survived the editing. We also filmed them when they had very little to eat. Toward the end of editing, we had a group of scenes that are “maybes.” We ended up keeping that dinner scene because it’s the only time we see them laughing, and I wanted them to have a moment of joy so that we then would see them come down from that moment of hope. . .
Cineaste: …hope that will be dashed.
Peled: Yes, sadly.
Cineaste: In China Blue there is a similar scene when Orchid goes back to visit her family and they have a lavish meal with everyone happy and celebrating. To what extent did you help with that?
Peled: Not at all. We were lucky to even be there. We were caught by the police and told to leave the area, but because her house is in a remote area of the village, I came in a car with tinted windows late at night and left early in the morning for two days in a row, in order to film. On that occasion we hired a cameraman from a local TV station because they speak in a Szechuan dialect there that was hard for Song Chen, the associate producer who worked with me, to understand. The cameraman was chased by the police, so we filmed the whole thing without knowing what was going on. It was translated later—we were not at all staging things because we didn’t understand or know what to expect.
Cineaste: In Bitter Seeds you create parallel stories involving the problem with the seeds and the problem with the marriage dowry. It’s intriguingly metaphoric—the seeds, fertility, growth, the future. Were you aware of that during filming or did it emerge more fully during the process of editing?
Peled: I was kind of more practical about it when making the film. When I came to India, I was looking for the location in the region that had twenty-three thousand farming villages, I traveled from village to village, listening to the farmers telling their tales of woe. I found that they were very much like Krishna—very taciturn, depressed types that could not hold a movie. How long do we want to sit and watch somebody who has very little to say and who is depressed and worried all the time?But I heard that many of those who committed suicide also had a daughter of marrying age whose dowry they couldn’t afford. There’s such deep shame in their not fulfilling their duty as a father that it pushes them over the edge. I then started going to the high schools to meet with young women in the graduating class who would be eligible for marriage two or three months later, and that’s how I found Manjusha. The issue of the dowry was on my mind all the time. From the beginning her mother bemoans the trouble she’s brought to her family by having two daughters. And so that’s very much a part of the story for them and a very important part of what I wanted to show.
The larger structure of the film is very much dictated by the seasons. As a farmer you sow, you wait for the rain, you take care of the plants, you watch them grow, you fertilize, and hopefully you have a good harvest and take it to market.
Cineaste: Your cinematography in Bitter Seeds is powerfully lyrical. Can you talk about your work on that level?
Peled: I pay a lot of attention to that. I shot about eighty-five percent of China Blue myself under difficult conditions—just Song Chen, who was doing audio, and myself. I would shoot and direct, always looking over my shoulder, and I’m not a professional cinematographer. With Bitter Seeds I had the luxury of being able to direct the cinematography more. I went through three cinematographers: the first one was very professional but most of his experience was in filming wildlife. The first day I was shooting a conversation between Ram Krishna and his wife and I let him set it up, thinking what do I know? I may learn something about the culture. So he had them both sit on the couch with the camera dead center, and he checked his light and focus and the sound was right and he just said, “Bo!,” the equivalent in that dialect of “Speak.” So he didn’t work out. I then thought maybe a woman would bond with my female characters, and someone was recommended, but she was from Calcutta and didn’t speak the local dialect, nor did I find her particularly creative. I kept looking until I found this fellow, Devendra Golatkar, who was only two or three years out of film school at the time. But he had a natural eye for composition that I thought was great. He also knew how to work with available light, although he still needed direction in other areas. For example, in India for some reason the cinematographers don’t listen. They think that’s the job of the sound recordist, but it means that they’re not following the conversation and not knowing were to go with the camera. I had to help him in terms of how to shoot certain scenes, but I’m very happy I found him.
Cineaste: The film includes a series of visual motifs that gather power as the film progresses. Especially compelling are the silhouettes of farmers plowing with their bulls against the sunrise or sunset that adds emotional nuance.
Peled: It was very important to provide local color—whether it’s the bull festival, the girls dancing, or the people singing. They don’t have recorded music, but they are able to have their fun singing. I had to fight to keep this sort of thing in the film at the end when we started chopping things down to the length we wanted.
Cineaste: When you say fight, with whom? Yourself?
Peled: Yes, myself, and a bit with my editor but in the end it’s my decision. I knew that I wanted to make a ninety-minute film—not a two-hour film. There also is a fifty-six-minute version showing on PBS, which is very pared down. Capturing the rhythm of life, the animals, the slow pace is something that was very important to me.
Cineaste: As you think about the trilogy, how do you feel, how do you assess the films?
Peled: I definitely have a great sense of completion about the trilogy that has taken twelve years to make. So that feels good. It’s liberating that now I can pick up any topic in the world. I have traveled all over the world with these films, particularly with China Blue and Bitter Seeds. I’ve been on four continents with Bitter Seeds, and in general the reactions are very similar because of the issues involved and because Monsanto itself is a presence all over the world. There’s always someone who asks, “Well, what can we do about it?,” which is my favorite question. What I would love is when NGO representatives are there and, in answering the question, I can pass the baton to them and let them answer it. I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “Thank you for opening my eyes. I had no idea.” And what gets my attention about a project early on is when I also can say, “Wow, I had no idea.” So, I think other people will have no idea. Arthur Miller said once about his own work that every project should bring news, meaning that there should be something new about every piece of work—that has been one of my mantras.
A second thing I’ve tried to with this trilogy, and when I think about it, also with my previous films, is to put a human face on so many of these big issues. If I say to you, there are ten million Chinese workers exploited so we can have cheap clothes, what else is new? With that film I really wanted to have Jasmine almost become like the girl next door. Even though she’s so different from us in her daily circumstances, if I can humanize her on a universal level—for instance, her emotions, her missing her parents, her sense of humor, or the fact that she loves to write short stories, whatever the example—then exploiting her is no longer acceptable. Film is an emotional medium. My goal is to have you see the film and then do research and get connected with an activist group. But I do, first and foremost, deal with narrative—with stories and emotions because that what film is.
Cineaste: Your first feature documentary, Will My Mother Go Back to Berlin?, must have been an emotional project for you. How did that film come about?
Peled: Shortly after making A Voice in the Mission, I got a surprise package in the mail—a thick envelope filled with papers on which my mother basically had written her life story. For years I’d been pestering her to write her experiences down. What moved me most was realizing that my mother, in her own quiet, understated way was a great model of a Jew in the twentieth century who was not a victim. She somehow took her destiny in her own hands. She grew up in Berlin; she lived for five years under the Nazis, and she got her diploma and moved to Palestine to escape from the Nazis. She made her modest contribution toward defeating them by joining the British Army during World War II in the North Africa battle against the Germans. She also was part of an economic team that prepared the state of Israel before it got its independence. She was the first woman in Israel with a motorcycle license; when I was two and a half years old, she started a farm and was still going to work in the government ministry as an economist while running the farm—so to me she was a great model.
I wanted to tell the world about her, but I wondered how I was going to do it. I knew I wanted to make a film, but who would be interested in a film about someone nobody had heard of? I came up with the “high concept” idea of creating a narrative arc that would include the story of her life but through an event unfolding in front of the camera. The film’s title announces the main narrative question.
Cineaste: Why is it such a crucial question?
Peled: During my childhood my mother was always very much a German Jew—when I was six she would read me Grimm brothers’ stories, which she would translate; when she was angry or scared she would speak in German, when she sat at the piano it was Bach; she was very punctual, very German. Yet she always refused to have anything to do with the German state. She would not buy German products; she would not set foot on German soil; she would not even apply for reparations from Germany that she was entitled to—she wanted nothing to do with it. Her best friend in the world was a Christian German who lived in Munich, and they would meet often, but either Eva would come to Israel or they would meet in Italy or Spain or France.
I became aware of a German initiative in which the government actually paid the way for Jews who fled the Nazis to come back for a week to their home cities. In one of the programs, they would arrange for the visitors to meet with school groups and talk about what life had been like before and when they fled. My idea was to get such an invitation for my mother and see if, after all these years, she would agree to go. I wrote the film treatment with two possible directions, depending on her decision. I didn’t want to ask her until the right moment when the camera was rolling.
And I was lucky enough to find a producer in Germany who also was Jewish and who convinced two television stations to put up enough money to make the film. Nowadays people just pick up a camera and make a film, but in the early Nineties for broadcast you needed to have a Beta SP camera, which is not a consumer camera. I was lucky that for a first feature documentary I had that kind of support—with an entire crew, some more experienced than I was, so that I could concentrate on the double role of being the director, as well as the son in front of the camera. I realized it was very important that I am the son.
Cineaste: So you are a presence in the film?
Peled: Very much. At the beginning, I go to Berlin and find traces of her—the apartment where she lived, a friend from elementary school who remembers her very fondly and wishes she would come back. I also found the Nazi documents ordering people on her street to report to the train station the next Tuesday morning at eight o’clock with one suitcase in order to be transported east. The document was very specific, but it never said the Jews have to report, but instead named specific buildings and apartments. At that point my mother had already left for Palestine.
Cineaste: How old was your mother when she left Berlin.
Peled: She was twenty-five.
Cineaste: As you were filming, did you ever show your mother any of the footage of her elementary school friend or her childhood apartment in order to convince her to return to Berlin?
Peled: No. We did the whole shoot in three weeks. We went first to Germany then to Israel. But more importantly, I had to keep my true intentions secret from my mother, including the title of the film for obvious reasons. I told the crew that the film was called “Nora’s Life,” so she wouldn’t have any clue, and in the film we talk about her, her life in Israel, and our mother–son dynamic. When I finally do ask her about returning to Berlin, hopefully by that time the audience really cares about knowing what will happen.
Cineaste: How did audiences react to the film?
Peled: The film was seen very differently in different countries. In Germany, which was the intended audience, people saw it in terms of whether Jews are ready to forgive us fifty years after the Holocaust—understandably so. In America people saw it as a film about the relationship between a mother and her adult son. And in Israel, they said you got the title wrong—the title should be “Will My Son Come Back to Israel?” [Laughs] And I thought it was a great compliment that the film is rich enough to be interpreted in different ways.
Cineaste: Would you ever want to go back to live in Israel?
Peled: Well, you never want to say never. I made a film called You, Me, Jerusalem, codirected with a Palestinian, Georges Khleifi, a project I kind of invented because I always thought about living in Jerusalem—not in Israel per se. I wanted to feel Jerusalem from the inside because it’s such a fascinating place. But while I love my country, my culture, my language, my friends, the food, if you live there you have to get into the politics of the place, and I’d rather stay out of it.
Cineaste: Can you tell us about your current project?
Peled: It’s a film called GOAL: The Incredible Journey that looks at a fresh approach to the homelessness issue by a group called Street Soccer USA, an organization that includes social entrepreneurs, who partner with social-service agencies, drug-rehab. centers, and homeless shelters. Participants commit to working on personal life goals with the help of the mostly volunteer staff and are encouraged to apply sports values, like team spirit, and personal accountability, in their daily lives. Coaches and players create a family-like support system usually missing in the lives of the homeless. The organization estimates that seventy-five percent of their participants connect to jobs, housing, and education, and homeless players are propelled to places they’ve never imagined. After a series of regional competitions, teams from eighteen cities pile into vans or planes and head to New York to compete in the USA Cup in Times Square. The film weaves together two narrative arcs—the sports drama of team competition and the personal journeys of individual players selected to represent the United States at the Homeless World Cup, held this summer in Poland.
My personal connection to the topic is my lifelong passion for soccer. As a fan, I was surprised to stumble upon the Street Soccer program. Getting to know the players and volunteer coaches at home in San Francisco, I realized this effort deserves to be celebrated.
Cynthia Lucia is professor of English and director of Film and Media Studies at Rider University. She is author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film and co-editor of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine