There's something haplessly appropriate about this year's DC Labor Filmfest opening with a movie that demonizes New Orleans.
"Mardi Gras: Made in China," which opens the festival tonight, is a film that in any other year would have been a revealing and sobering look at globalization, in this case through the lens of the underpaid and overworked Chinese laborers who make the millions of cheap beads that are flung at half-naked women every year during the world's largest Amateur Night.
First-time filmmaker David Redmon traveled to Fuzhou to interview the owner of China's largest beadmaking factory, as well as several of the young women who work up to 16 hours a day stringing, soldering, painting and extruding the doodads and gewgaws that wind up on our rearview mirrors (or, more likely, in our landfills). And he goes one step further, taking his footage to an actual Mardi Gras celebration and showing it to drunken revelers, making "Mardi Gras: Made in China" history's most politically earnest snuff film, as viewers watch while a buzz is killed before their eyes. (Redmon also shows Mardi Gras footage to the Chinese workers, who are understandably bemused by women taking off their clothes for ugly pieces of plastic.)
Well, timing is everything. And even though we're meant to reflect on the decadence, mindless consumerism and amorality that drive the global market for Mardi Gras beads, after watching "Mardi Gras: Made in China" we're left instead with a rueful fondness for all that was right and wrong about the Crescent City, and pondering the cruel irony of how Hurricane Katrina's ill winds will finally reach Fuzhou. It may be true, as Redmon demonstrates, that the workers have been exploited by their cynical millionaire boss and his American clients, but it's less clear what their options will be now that their factory's prime market has been destroyed.
If "Mardi Gras: Made in China" is a victim of timing, then the entire festival reflects a larger labor movement that is in seismic disarray this year, with three of the AFL-CIO's largest unions seceding in July to create their own labor federation. (The Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO is a co-sponsor of the Filmfest, now in its fifth year, along with the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute and the American Film Institute.) Indeed, most of this year's programming harks back to the past, with retrospective screenings of such pro-labor classics as the 1961 Italian film "Il Posto," Mike Judge's white-collar-ghetto flick "Office Space" and Barbara Kopple's "American Dream," her Oscar-winning 1991 documentary of a Minnesota labor strike. Tomorrow, Kopple will appear with her first Oscar-winning film, "Harlan County, USA," in which she chronicled a violent coal mine strike in Kentucky. On Saturday Jane Fonda will be on hand to introduce "Nine to Five," the delightfully subversive 1980 comedy in which she starred with Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin.
Even the new films at the Filmfest are old: "The Phantom of the Operator," by Canada's Caroline Martel, is a fanciful assemblage of found footage from industrial films touting and training the telecommunications sector's female workforce. And "Maids," a 2001 movie that, with playful humor, traces the lives of several domestic workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is notable mostly for announcing the talent of its then-unknown director, Fernando Meirelles ("City of God," "The Constant Gardener").
Indeed, of the films on offer at this year's Labor Filmfest, one stands out as being truly of-the-moment. To make "Off to War," brothers Brent and Craig Renaud traveled to their home state of Arkansas to follow several members of its National Guard unit as they were called up for service in Iraq, sent into training and finally deployed to Kuwait and Baghdad. This compassionate, candid look at the implications of the war for these working-class men and their families serves as a haunting reminder of the painful realities behind rhetoric that is too often steeped in politics and false patriotism.
DC Labor Filmfest begins tonight with a screening of "Mardi Gras: Made in China" at 8 p.m. The festival continues through Sept. 21. All screenings will be held at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. For complete program information call 301-495-6700 or visit www.afi.com/silver