Interview with Mladen Kovacevic, filmmaker of Merry Christmas, Yiwu, presented in the section Seeking Communities (November 12-18).
The image you’re giving of the Yiwu factories goes against the typical Western portrayal of Chinese sweatshops, which is often miserabilist or sensationalist. Is that something you were wary of avoiding from the beginning?
I avoided sensationalism, and I gradually learned that the stereotypical negative images are not relevant as they were a decade or two ago. One of the first things I saw when I came to China was a notice board advertising for new workers next to the factory gate, and the salaries were a few times higher than what factory workers earn in Serbia. Maybe Serbia is not a measure for high standards, but still, these workers were in fact carrying big new iPhones, meanwhile inside the factories I mostly found sociable, even family atmosphere. I'm not saying that working in the factories is pleasant, far from that. But the work inside the factories is rarely pleasant, in China, or anywhere else. The life of the working class, especially the factory workers, is universally hard. That is why one of the biggest problems of modern China, is the shortage of workforce, especially the young workers. Now there are so many other opportunities. So even that stereotype about abundant cheep workforce is not true as it was before. Many of these things I discovered only when I got to China.
In the past, some photo essays about Yiwu chose a totally different approach. Were you yourself surprised by what you discovered there?
I believe you refer to one concrete photo essay. Amazing photographs that to me felt quite stylized, focused on one small and very strange looking workshop, not really a factory, and it felt as much as a comment on the harsh working conditions, as on the western consumerism that especially goes crazy during the Christmas season, to me they even had a clear ecological aspect. No doubt that places like that exist, or they existed a few years ago, and I was actually curious to find something looking like that, quite striking, but never did. Besides the many large factories, I visited many small ones which I found much more resembling arts and crafts ateliers, often messy and disorganized, but far from the images of sweatshops from hell. However, I must emphasize, in some of these factories or even the small workshops, if there are chemical processes, plastic fumes, even if images are not harsh, it is far from pleasant.
You chose to focus not so much on working conditions, but on the workers’ intimate lives and longings. Why were you more interested in that aspect, and how did you manage to achieve such intimacy?
That was the intention even before I learned about Yiwu and its Christmas factories. I wanted to make a film about a slice of contemporary China, about intimate everyday lives of the Chinese workers. The reason why I realized the Yiwu is a good backdrop is mainly because the Christmas is emotionally relevant to western audiences, and not just because the Christmas is the biggest western holiday, or because it is the time when western demand for the Chinese products is most obvious, but because Christmas is the most important family holiday in the West, and the sentimentality of Christmas puts us into the right frame of mind to observe these factories not just as places of production, but as intimate places where best friends talk about important life decisions, where couples breakup and new romances happen, where parents try to motivate their children to go back to school, while they can think only of being rich, being free to do what they want. And the approach to achieve such intimacy was to be genuinely interested in their lives, in what really concerns them, not what concerns us outside observers. I came there without my own agenda, only with a plan to make a film from the fragments of their own reality.
You’re depicting a world at the intersection of communism, capitalism and globalism. Do you think your film says something about China as a whole, but also about other societies – those consuming these Christmas products?
My impression was that the Chinese working class is now somewhere between the communist and Confucian tradition on one side, and the capitalism and consumerism on the other, the younger generation being much closer to this other side. While it's hard for me to say how much the film says about the Chinese society as a whole, it being so big, and economically unevenly developed, and culturally so diverse – which by the way was a biggest personal revelation – that China feels much more as a continent where even though you have a superficial uniformity through communism, thinking of its different parts feels as if comparing Finland and Spain, or Norway and Turkey. They even speak in more than 200 dialects, many of them mutually completely unintelligible. What did feel as universal were the family relationships that are still central in the life of the Chinese, while the generational gap is bigger there than anywhere else in the developed world. Or the melancholy caused by never-ending migration of its 300 million migrant workers inside China that more than anything set the tone for the film – my attempt to make a gentle film about these characters. Of course, it is inevitable with this kind of background for the story – a city in China that has 600 Christmas factories that produce for the entire world - to broaden the discussion into the global consumerism. But when it comes to that, again, I had a very simple ambition – when we buy the Christmas ornaments and then look at them hanging from a Christmas tree, or when we put on a Santa hat on our way to party – to think of the people that make them. The film attempts to let audiences experience the lives of the workers that make them, which enriches us all, and even enriches our impression of Christmas.
Being yourself from a post-communist country, did you feel a connection to some of these issues?
I'm not sure. Communism in Yugoslavia was very different to Communism in China, while post-communism in Serbia, and Communism 2.0 in China, feel even more different. Growing up in communist Yugoslavia, I did wear a red scarf when I was kid, so the iconography is certainly familiar. Serbia, and Yugoslavia before, is geographically, historically and politically lingering between East and West, so I'm possibly less victim to western stereotypes about China, but even that feels as another stereotype – how westerners see China, it's surely not the same sentiment in France and America, and even inside these countries there is so much multiplicity. After wars in former Yugoslavia, and then the never-ending corrupt transition into capitalism, I was definitely intrigued by Chinese economic success and the changes in the Chinese society in past decades that with all the issues that they are facing, still felt as progress, unlike what I experienced in my own country. This genuine curiosity about China is what connects me with the issues we talked about much more than the state of things in my own post-communist society.
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