Red Dust


Year: 2008

Type: Documentary Film (20 minutes, in Mandarin and Sichuanhua with English subtitles: with website & facebook page)

Director: Karin Mak.

Availability: Screening information and DVD available upon request from director (here). Trailer available on YouTube (1.03 minutes, embedded below)

Page reference: Alonso, A., Tagle, D. and Reis, J.(2011) Red dust. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/reddust.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)



Red Dust, is a 20-minute documentary by Karin Mak on the efforts of Chinese nickel-cadmium battery workers to document and end debilitating illnesses from cadmium poisoning in the production of rechargeable batteries (Source: Brown 2010, p.8).

RED DUST is an exposé on the deadly price paid by female factory workers who suffer from cadmium poisoning resulting from their jobs in a Chinese battery factory (Source: Anon 2011a, np link).

Poisoned by the carcinogen cadmium in the battery factories where they worked, Ren and her comrades engage in a desperate struggle for justice. RED DUST captures rural and urban poverty and the risks involved in speaking up in China. In face of daunting obstacles that affect their work, health, and future, the women persevere (Source: Anon 2011b, np link).

The incredible story of resistance, courage and hope by women workers in China battling cadmium poisoning and demanding justice from the local government and their employer, a multi-national battery manufacturer (Source: Anon 2010a, np link).

The human stories of exploitation in this documentary show the complexities behind China's growth, the forces that shape it, the forces that challenge it (Source: Anon nda, np link).

RED DUST tells an unexamined side of China's economic development: the resistance, courage, and hope of workers battling occupational disease, demanding justice from the local government and global capital (Source: Anon 2011c, np link).

The documentary follows the main character Ren on her journey home to rural Sichuan, a poor province in China where many factory workers hail from. Ren suffers from cadmium poisoning, and worries about what will happen to her family as her health deteriorates. Ren meets regularly with her friends Min and Fu, who . . . also worked for [battery manufacturer] GP. Now the three women help other workers who suffer from the effects of cadmium poisoning through lawsuits and actions. The film intercuts between scenes of Ren in the country and scenes of her comrades in the city. The back and forth visually juxtaposes the rural countryside with the cityscape. Over 150 million Chinese peasants have flocked to the cities to earn money in low-wage jobs. This mass migration is one of the reasons China's labor costs are low. The surplus labor provided by migrant workers attracts foreign investors like GP, a multinational company that makes batteries for Wal-Mart, Mattel, and Toys R Us. Most of the migrants who work in the factories are women. Ren, who left the countryside three days before she was set to start middle school, accuses the factory of taking advantage of her as a migrant worker: ‘We don't have much education...The factory never told us cadmium was harmful.' Audiences meet Ren’s hard-working family in the countryside her mother, who is a farmer, and a cousin whom Ren has not seen in fifteen years. The slower-paced rural life is reflected in longer and wider shots. The beautiful landscapes and rustic feel, however cannot hide the poverty, lack of opportunities, and the legacy of favoring boys over girls in China that push women like Ren to leave the countryside. Rural life is incredibly labor-intensive as Ren and her mom are always doing something while talking to the camera: hand washing laundry, preparing vegetables, or clearing land. Details of the country life are richly captured. In one scene, an itinerant barber comes by Ren’s home to cut Ren and her mom’s hair. As the camera captures the cutting, audiences learn that they are selling their hair to make extra money. Meanwhile back in the city of Huizhou, Min and Fu gather in a hotel room a space they see as a safe place to meet - to recount the history of their struggle. They explain archival photographs of worker actions outside the factories. The photographs, taken by workers themselves, have not been seen outside of China. ‘We had work stoppages and demanded medical compensation,’ says Fu. In China, workers may be jailed for what the state calls disrupting the harmony of society. Fu holds back her tears as she recalls how someone threatened her for participating in the struggle. The faster-paced edits in the city hotel correspond to the rushed, modern, and cramped life. Interviews in the hotel room with Fu and Wu include cuts to angular close-ups of their bodies, which visually represent how woman’s bodies have been compartmentalized, cut-up, as part of China’s economic development. In both urban and rural spaces though, the women are marginalized. Fu, from rural Hunan says, ‘I’m in the my thirties and am afraid to have children because I see my co-workers children are sick. A woman without children cannot stay in the village so I had to return to the city where I got my occupational disease.’ Although the women look physically healthy, cadmium has affected their internal organs and they experience chronic pain. In one scene, Min displays all the different medicines she takes for headaches, bone aches, and sore throats-- and those are only the ones she can afford. The last character the audience meets is Wu, who is suing GP. Her stack of documents chronicling correspondence with the factory and medicals records lay scattered on the white bed sheets in my hotel room as she flips through them, figuring out which ones to explain to the camera. Fear of someone overhearing the conversation from outside the hotel room however, interrupts her testimony as the camera nervously pans away. She ends by saying, ‘We lost our lives to the factory.’ RED DUST is told through observational cinema style with the workers positioned as experts on their situation. The film also has self-reflexive elements in it such that the audience discovers cadmium poisoning along with the filmmaker. Given China's rising role in global economics and politics, many audiences are interested in learning more about the country with the world’s fastest growing economy. The documentary’s intimate moments with the characters make the film appeal to a broad range of audiences. Ultimately, the documentary humanizes Chinese workers and shows their activism, something that has not yet been seen in the media (Source: Anon ndb np link).

Red cadmium dust drifted freely in China’s nickel-cadmium battery factories owned and operated by GP BATTERIES (GP), one of the world’s top battery manufacturers. Ren, a migrant worker originally from Sichuan, suffers from frequent headaches and breathing difficulties. If untreated, the cadmium poisoning can lead to kidney failure, cancer, and even death. RED DUST tells an unexamined side of China’s economic development: the resistance, courage, and hope of workers battling occupational disease, demanding justice from the local government and global capital. Chinese migrant workers are deemed disposable by factory owners and are stereotypically viewed as quiet and passive victims. However, Ren and other GP workers (Min, Fu, and Wu) fight back. Labor issues are very sensitive in China, and workers who publicly discuss their struggles do so at great risk. The audience discovers along with the filmmaker, a Chinese American, the horrors of the global assembly line.  This documentary is about women who are the engine of the global economy. Although the film takes place in China, the characters’ experiences are universal to workers on the margins around the world, where poverty, migration, and workplace hazards are common realities (Source: Anon ndc, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

She fell in love with filmmaking while in the Media Studies program at Pomona College. For several years, Karin worked at the non-profit organization Sweatshop Watch. In 2008, she earned an M.A. in Social Documentation from the University of California Santa Cruz. Karin's films have screened in Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities (Source: Anon 2011d np link).

China holds an interesting place in the American imagination. Think of the ‘Chinese factory worker’ and undoubtedly images of quiet and docile women come to mind. The majority of factory workers in China and around the world are women. But are they as submissive as the stereotype? In recent years, Chinese workers have engaged in strikes, walk-outs, and petitions. While the major news outlets have focused on the country’s rapid economic growth, I wanted to make a film that would amplify Chinese workers’ voices. In this period of unprecedented wealth-building, what have been the social costs? Labor issues are very sensitive in China. For the film, I searched for workers who were willing to come forward to talk about their labor struggle with a foreigner. Many refused. The women featured in Red Dust bravely did. Although the cadmium poisoning case had been covered in the China Central Television (CCTV) before I had met them, the former GP Batteries workers still faced intense pressure to keep quiet (Source: Mak nd, np link).

The films cinema-verite style gives viewers an intimate and immediate portrait of working life in China. The film is shot on digital video in order to maintain a low profile in China, where official film shoots require government approval (Source: Anon ndb, np link).

I am inspired by the courageous women I met along the way and am grateful for the mentors, family, and friends who have supported me throughout this maddening process of making a documentary. My hope is that the former GP Batteries worker’s endeavors are not lost upon audiences and I look forward to the day when they will get the justice due to them (Source: Mak nd, np link).

Discussion / Responses

Red Dust ... chronicles the struggle for justice by women workers in China who have been poisoned by cadmium while manufacturing nickel-cadmium batteries. Cadmium has been in the international and USA news lately as found in jewellery and McDonald's Shrek glasses. However, the majority of cadmium is used for production of nickel-cadmium batteries, a type of rechargeable battery. Cadmium is a very toxic heavy metal and the brave women in the film live with its debilitating effects in addition to risking their safety in their fight for justice. It covers themes of workers' rights, globalization, occupational safety and health, China's economic development and women's rights. . . . The audience discovers along with the filmmaker, a Chinese American, the horrors of the global assembly line (Source: Anon 2010b, np link).

I document their struggle with the aim that their story can be heard in the U.S. and around the world. Red Dust chronicles the experiences of women in the global economy. The GP Batteries factories opened in Huizhou during China’s liberalization, part of the country’s economic development strategy that welcomed foreign direct investment. For the workers who worked at the GP Batteries factories for many years, the excitement of being independent wage earners escaping the poverty and patriarchy of the rural countryside gave way to the reality that they were disposable. This realization of betrayal and of a dream shattered have left them deeply embittered. Red Dust is a commentary not on China, but on global capitalism (Source: Mak nd, np link).

At only 21 minutes, Karin Mak’s documentary Red Dust maximizes every second as it follows female workers fighting for medical care from their former employer, China’s GP Batteries factory, after suffering years of cadmium poisoning. The women — mostly rural migrant workers who moved to the city to earn money — endure constant headaches, body aches, sore throats and the high, looming risk of kidney failure, lung cancer and bone disease from exposure to cadmium, which is more poisonous than lead. In their personal lives, they must deal with cost-prohibitive medicines, the emotional toll illness has taken on spouses and families and the threat of intimidation from the factory and police, as independent labor organizing is illegal in China. The women’s sadness and exhaustion is juxtaposed with an ardent determination to support their ‘sisters united’ as they take legal action against GP Batteries and draw attention to workers’ rights and factory conditions. Red Dust, Mak’s thesis film from University of California, Santa Cruz’s social documentation program, beautifully reveals the humanity behind a true David vs. Goliath social justice movement (Source: Kim 2011 np link).

Impacts / Outcomes

Write a letter to GP BATTERIES.

Mr. Victor Lo, CEO Gold Peak Group
Gold Peak Industries (Holdings) Limited
Gold Peak Building 8/F
30 Kwai Wing Road, Kwai Chung
New Territories, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 2427 1133  
Fax: (852) 2489 1879
E-mail: gp@goldpeak.com


Dear GP Batteries:

I have learned of the horrors experienced by women poisoned by cadmium while making GP BATTERIES’ nickel-cadmium batteries. I am writing to urge you to take responsibility by meeting the workers' demands, which include proper compensation for medical treatment. Cadmium is an extremely toxic heavy metal and the workers’ exposure to cadmium has led to severe health and personal consequences. I implore you to be an industry leader by taking responsibility and providing compensation for workers. This issue cannot wait; I hope you take action today before it is too late for the women who had long-term exposure to cadmium.

Thank you very much.

Sincerely, (Source: Anon ndd, np link).

Sources / Further Reading

Anon (nda) Class of 2008 : Karim Mak ‘Red Dust’ (Video). UC Santa Cruz Social Documentation (http://socdoc.ucsc.edu/alumni/mak.php last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (ndb) Red Dust. New film makers online (www.newfilmmakersonline.com/title.aspx?levelID=15968&assetID=3090 last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (ndc) About the film: synopsis. reddustdocumentary.org (/www.reddustdocumentary.org/aboutfilm.asp last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (ndd) Take action: write a letter. reddustdocumentary.org (www.reddustdocumentary.org/TakeAction-Letter.asp last accessed 28 June 2011)

Anon (2010a) Red Dust. Cliff Canadian Labour International Film Festival (http://labourfilms.ca/cliff/festival-locations/ontario/guelph/ last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (2010b) Red Dust - documentary on cadmium poisoning in Chinese women battery workers. Good Electronics 6 August (http://goodelectronics.org/news-en/red-dust-documentary-on-cadmium-poisoning-in-chinese-women-battery-workers last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (2011a) Red Dust. Foundation for Asian American Independent Media (www.faaim.org/ last accessed 28 June 2011)

Anon (2011b) Red Dust. Love to S.U.R.G.E (http://lovetosurge.weebly.com/red-dust.html last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (2011c) Red Dust. Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (http://laapff.festpro.com/films/detail/red_dust_2011 last accessed 24 June 2011)

Anon (2011d) Allied Media Conference 2010. alliedmedia.org (http://alliedmedia.org/amc2010/news/2010/06/17/amc2010-presenters last accessed 24 June 2011)

Brown, G. (2010) New resources. Border/Line Health & Safety XI(2), p.8 (http://mhssn.igc.org/news_aug2010.pdf last accessed 24 June 2011)

Johnson, T. & Ridder, K. (2004) Chinese find jobs are poison; families may suffer too, but workers face threats if they complain to Beijing battery factory cadmium. The Charlotte observer 9 November (www.reddustdocumentary.org/PDFs/CharlotteObs_poison.pdf last accessed 28 June 2011)

Kim, S. (2011) DVD review: Red Dust. Hyphen 23 (www.hyphenmagazine.com/magazine/issue-23-bittersweet/dvd-review-red-dust last accessed 24 June 2011)

Mak, K. (nd) About the film: director’s statement. reddustdocumentary.org (www.reddustdocumentary.org/directorsstatement.asp last accessed 24 June 2011)

Spencer, J. & Ye, J. (2008) Toxic factories take toll on China’s labor force. Wall Street journal (Eastern edition)15 January p.A.1 (www.reddustdocumentary.org/PDFs/WSJ_toxic%20toll.pdf last accessed 28 June 2011)

Spencer, J. (2008) Toys ‘R’ Us, Mattel phase out cadmium batteries. The Wall Street journal 19 February p.B4 (www.reddustdocumentary.org/PDFs/WSJ_phaseout%20cd%20batteries.pdf last accessed 28 June 2011)

Tofani, L. (2001) Chinese workers lose their lives producing goods for America. The Salt Lake tribune 21-24 October (http://extras.sltrib.com/china last accessed 28 June 2011)

Compiled by Alex Alonso, David Tagle and Jennifer Reis, edited by Daisy Livingston (last updated June 2011). Page created for followthethings.com as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University. Trailer embedded with permission of Karin Mak.