Foxconn is the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, producing iPhones, iPods, Nokias, etc. It employs more than 900,000 workers in China. In the first five months of 2010, the world was shocked to see a continuous series of suicides happening in Foxconn. What actually went wrong? This video is part of the report “Workers as Machines: Military management in Foxconn” released by SACOM.
The most interesting new documentary filmmaker I met in Hong Kong is Jack Linchuan Qiu. He is, in fact, an outstanding social scientist, author of Working Class Network Society, professor at The Chinese University in Hong Kong and, until very recently, not a filmmaker at all. Last spring, he decided to pick up a camera incited by the wave of worker suicides at tech-giant Foxconn, which has close to one million employees in China and produces most of our iPads and iPhones. It also produces something like 40,000 broken fingers annually, as Qiu and other researchers had found out earlier from field research in hospitals in the Pearl River Delta.
Frustrated by the lack of access and information provided by Foxconn, Qiu and colleagues of universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sjanghai joined forces with student network SACOM and decided to resort to new collaborative methods. They used the internet, mobile and video technology to organize a massive, networked data collection effort, in order to better understand the working conditions in the Foxconn factories connected to the suicides.
Pun Ngai – an acclaimed ethnographer who also wrote Made in China on the basis of her experiences as a factory worker – was among the initiators of the project, which involved students successfully applying for summer jobs at Foxconn factories and taking photos and video on the job with cell phone cameras. Qiu had been using video, photography and audio recordings in his fieldwork for years, but resorted to i-movie editing and documentary filmmaking for the first time with the Foxconn project. He started to edit the visual material gathered by the researchers (photos, video and audio) and made a poetic, angry yet very factual twenty minute film, which might evolve into a feature length documentary called ‘Deconstructing Foxconn‘.
Even more moving is his black and white short film about a visit to Taipei on a rainy day, where he reads a poem for the deceased workers in front of the Foxconn headquarters until he’s interrupted by a security guard. The way the camera keeps recording while it’s being handed to the taxi driver reminds me of Jean Rouch‘ best films. On the way back to the airport, Qiu gets involved in a lengthy discussion with the taxi driver, which he keeps entirely in the film.
The work is still in progress, but what I have seen so far is very touching and immersive in the sense that it takes the viewer deep inside Foxconn and provides a view from within through video, photography and audio recordings collected over a long period of time. In this case, the ‘author’ of the film is a group of researchers armed with mobile phones and dressed in Foxconn uniforms, who are able to mix with the factory workers and report unusually rich data on feelings and atmospheres, in addition to quantitative data about wages and working hours. Without photo, video and audio functions on mobile phones, this would have been simply impossible.
Twenty five years ago, journalist and writer Gunter Wallraff did something similar when he went to work as a migrant worker in Germany and wrote a book about it (Lowest of the Low, 1985). Barbara Ehrenreich reported on living the hard life in the US from her own experience in Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America (2001) and Ngai did it in China more recently, armed with a theoretical perspective. But they did not have cameras.
I do feel that the visual dimension is adding a rich and essential layer to this type of work, which explores new realities immersively, from the inside outward. In Qiu’s film, we meet a seventeen year old girl who jumped and survived but will never be able to walk again. She does not need to say much. Just by seeing her in the hospital bed, we start to understand how she feels ad what she did. I think this kind of rich ‘visual information’ is among the real gains of the pervasive visual culture that is emerging. Many intellectuals, journalists and academics lament the decline of reading and the diminished impact of words. But is that really necessary? When we just stop for a minute, look and think about the depth of information provided in those video frames, I feel grateful for the possibility to watch them. And I wish I could help her get up and go.