Three Filipino laborers are recruited to Iraq to do laundry, clean toilets and build barracks for the US military. One is injured, one dies, and the third escapes the war zone, returning home greatly in debt. Meanwhile, Ethiopians harvesting coffee, barefoot and malnourished, make less than US$1 per day in a lucrative industry dominated by multinational corporations.
These and other human rights issues are one of the subjects of the Iron Horse Film Festival (鐵馬影展), an independent film showcase organized by the Coolloud Collective (苦勞網, www.coolloud.org.tw), Taiwan’s foremost alternative online medium dedicated to social activism.
“We try to raise issues not only through the films screened but through the way the film festival itself is organized and operated,” said Syu Pei-ran (徐沛然), the festival’s executive secretary. “We try to make it as a collective endeavor and encourage people to throw in their own ideas, imaginations and interpretations.”
Entering its fourth year, the festival screens 29 documentary, short and experimental works from Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, Canada, Australia and the US.
Asiaworld Strike, 90 Hours (環亞罷工90小時), a documentary by Taiwan’s Worker Video Action Unit (勞動轟拍小組), whose members are trained both as documentary filmmakers and union activists, captures the strike held by former employees of the Holiday Inn Asiaworld Taipei (環亞飯店) in 2006.
Another work that documents injustice is Someone Else’s War, which shows how poverty has forced more than 30,000 workers from Southeast Asia to work in US-occupied Iraq.
China Blue, by American filmmaker Micha X. Peled offers an intimate look into the extremely harsh working condition in Chinese factories, as seen through the eyes of teenage female workers. On the festival’s program notes, however, one Coolloud writer questions whether, as an observer, the Western director is also exploiting the workers for his own aims by leaving them in danger of being fired or getting in trouble with the Chinese authorities.
In China, documentary filmmakers are often subjected to close monitoring. According to Syu, the initial plan to devote a portion of the festival to Chinese documentaries was aborted after they found out that Chinese filmmakers had to first receive approval from local cultural bureaus before sending DVD copies of their works.
One Chinese filmmaker decided not to show his film at the last minute, fearing that he would not be able to complete a trilogy about mining life if the screening drew the attention of the communist authorities in China.
One Chinese film that made it through is Bingai (秉愛), by female documentary filmmaker Feng Yan (馮豔). Feng has been filming a documentary on the Three Gorges Dam since 1994, examining the controversial construction of the massive dam that spans the Yangtze River through the eyes of a female farmer. Another, For Every Minute That I Live, I’ll Enjoy the 60 Seconds (活著一分鐘 快樂六十秒), takes a sober look at a Chinese white-collar worker who turns to alcohol to numb himself because the fast-changing society no longer make sense.
Music as a form of cultural resistance is another theme of this year’s festival. In Amandla! a Revolution in Four Part Harmony, US director Lee Hirsch spent 10 years documenting the struggle of black South Africans against apartheid through the use of music.