Exploring the lives behind ‘Made in China’
Documentary film comes as a poignant reminder that the workers who do the most menial jobs are human beings too — and sometimes poets
I swallowed an iron moon/ They called it a screw/ I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms/ Bent over machines/ Our youth died young.
A Chinese documentary called Iron Moon that follows the lives of five workers behind the gritty rise of Chinese manufacturing arrived in the US on Friday with a premiere at the Cinema Village in New York City.
The film has already won major awards on the Chinese mainland and in Taiwan since its release in 2015. It has been shown more than 700 times in 130 cities. The film was re-edited to enhance its prospects for an Academy Award.
Iron Moon was inspired by a poem written by Xu Lizhi, a 24-year-old migrant worker in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, who committed suicide in the fall of 2014.
He jumped out of a window of a residential dormitory run by his employer, Foxconn, the electronics manufacturing giant with a million-strong workforce that makes the majority of the world’s Apple iPhones.
“Hundreds of thousands of people travel from China’s countryside to its cities to work in factories, building devices for international consumers and trying to assemble better lives for themselves,” Time magazine wrote in its cover story titled The Poet Who Died for Your Phone after Xu’s death.
However, Xu was not the only one faced with arduous, sometimes hazardous conditions in working-class jobs who kept his spirits up with verse.
The film also tells the story of Wu Xia, 33, a seamstress since she was 14; Wu Niaoniao, an unemployed forklift driver; Lao Jing, a coal miner for 25 years; and Chen Nianxi, a demolition worker for 16 years.
“It’s my first time this far from home,” said Chen Nianxi, who is traveling with filmmakers to show the documentary at theatres and major universities in the US. “I know no one here, and I can’t communicate in English. But I am familiar with the phones people are holding and those skyscrapers people are living in. Those metals used Eleanor Goodman, researcher and translator probably came from my hands.”
“This film didn’t change our characters’ destiny much. We didn’t make them middle-class. But instead, we have brought huge attention to those who can make a change to the entire community,” said Qin Xiaoyu, the film’s director.
To enhance the understanding of the film’s stories, an anthology of Chinese migrant worker poetry in English (also titled Iron Moon) was published by White Pine Press this year. It helps lead the discussion of a film that has reached more than 80 million people around the world.
“As a poet and translator of Chinese poetry, I have spent a lot of time interacting with Chinese poets. But for this very first time, I found I was doing such an important thing,” said Eleanor Goodman, research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and also the translator of the poems.
“It’s no longer poems. It’s sociology, cultural study, philosophy and everything,” she said.
“A friend of mine felt astonished of how rich the Chinese workers’ emotions are after reading the poems. That’s wrong!” Goodman said. “People should understand fundamentally that those people who work day and night are also human beings. And that’s the story (that) our film and anthology are (telling).”
The film is screening from Nov 11 to 17 in New Haven, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Durham, North Carolina.
It’s no longer poems. It’s sociology, cultural study, philosophy and everything.”
Judy Zhu in New York contributed to this story. IronMoon
In a screenshot from Iron Moon, demolition worker Chen Nianxi (pen name Lucky) writes a letter to his son, who goes to school hundreds of miles away. Below left: a poster of the film.
Above left: The company, including co-directors Wu Yuefei (center in movie poster hoodie) and Qin Xiaoyu (right of Wu), translator Eleanor Goodman (seated in black coat), Chen Nianxi (directly behind Qin), a poet in the film, and members of the audience gather after the US premiere screening at the Cinema Village in New York City on Nov 11.