DOXA 2017: Complicit

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Complicit | Directed by Heather White and Lynn Zhang | DOXA Documentary Film Festival | Screens May 6, 2017 and May 14, 2017

Ninety percent of the world’s consumer electronics are produced in China, but we don’t often stop to think about how our smartphones, tablets, and laptops are actually produced. What do the factories look like? What about the workers who produce these products? This enlightening documentary reveals the truth of this industry in China and the debilitating and often fatal occupational diseases that afflict the workers.

Benzene and n-hexane, solvents used to clean the screens of electronic devices, are highly toxic cancer- and paralysis-causing substances that have been banned in Western countries for decades. But in China, many companies are still using these solvents, often without informing workers and hiding it from media and the public.    

We follow Yi Yiteng, a labour activist and benzene poisoned victim of China’s electronics industry. He spends his days helping other victims learn their legal rights, bypass corruption to obtain occupational disease certificates, and  receive compensation for their illnesses. Watching him with his young son is heart wrenching as he tries not to think about whether he will live long enough to see his son grow up.

Yiteng works for the Guangzhou chapter of Labour Action China, a group that is targeted by the Chinese government after they start to become a problem for the big corporations who can no longer get away with ignoring their sick workers. Yiteng’s wife, Liu Huihui, is a stay-at-home mom, but she ends up going undercover in a small factory subcontracted by Foxconn to produce Apple products. The managers refused to show her some parts of the factory and the floor where some workers were poisoned.

Another young worker, Xiao Ya, moved to Ghangzhou from a rural village where her parents are farmers. She was mesmerized by the shimmering lights of the city and was happy to be working long hours and making money. She has not told her parents that she was poisoned by benzene, which was common among many of the workers her age. They came to the city to make money and help their families, and now they feel like they have failed and have become a burden instead. A feeling of shame seemed to preside over many of the victims, but after speaking with Yiteng many of them are inspired to take up the fight themselves and they join him as activists.

The largest electronics factory in China, Foxconn, makes products for many major brands such as Apple and Samsung, and the footage obtained through small hidden cameras was shocking. Many of the workers interviewed talked about working so much overtime they didn’t have time to sleep. One worker stayed awake for 36 hours before cutting off three of his fingers. Many of the workers are teenagers who have come to the city in search of work and a better life, but they would have been better off on the farm.

After meeting Ming Kunpeng’ s family and learning about his benzene-poisoning and aggressive chemotherapy that is a huge financial strain on his family, we’re told that he committed suicide. Moments like that, that make you sick to your stomach, are what make this such a powerful film.

With compelling protagonists, incredible access to an inside look at the offending factories, and intimate portraits of a few victims, Complicit shows us this corrupt and toxic industry in glaring detail and reminds us that we are all responsible. 

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