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February 6, 2023

Conquering The Great Mall Of China

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Bulkland, a documentary film that looks at the mountains of cheap products made in the Chinese city of Yiwu
Bulkland, a documentary film that looks at the mountains of cheap products made in the Chinese city of Yiwu

Daniel Whelan is the director of Bulkland, a documentary film that looks at the mountains of cheap products made in the Chinese city of Yiwu and the plight of the day-workers and children who do
the work.

He spoke with The Echo about his film, which is screening at the Byron Bay Film Festival, 11am Saturday at the Byron Theatre.

What made you decide to make a film about the plight of Chinese labourers?

Labour is the reason that things from China are cheap. Our film is about the city where cheap stuff comes from so it made sense to spend some time with labourers. A huge part of the population in Yiwu are migrant workers who’ve come from other parts of the country to work in factories on the east coast. We didn’t really intend to spend too much time talking about the labour aspect of the city until we went to a ‘talent market’, which you see in the film. It’s an area of the city that is full of migrant workers looking for work, full-time or just for a day or two. There are also hundreds of agents working for factories set up there trying to find workers. We’d never seen anything like it; it was a bizarre scene. We met a guy there whom we followed as he applied and got a job in a German notebook factory. He lived apart from his kids and saw them once a year. He was earning money so they could be together again as a family but he couldn’t get enough to cover his expenses and send much home. Almost everyone at this talent market wanted more money because they couldn’t afford to live in a China that is getting more and more expensive.

What did you find in making your documentary? 

I think the biggest takeaway was how much we rely on things being cheap now. Retailers, traders and manufacturers have battled it out to make things we don’t want to spend money on so cheap that we don’t even think about buying them. So much so that it’s changed our habits. We consume so much more but for a lot less, in terms of fashion, toys and other non-essential goods. This is good in some ways – lots of work for people in developing countries, affordable things for people with less money. But the flip side is the toll on the environment as we fill landfill with garments and broken toys and the fact that an entire city such as Yiwu lives on such tiny profit margins so that when wages rise businesses start to fail and people are out of work. 

How did you choose which part of the story to tell, where to create your major focus?

The whole shoot was character based. We wanted to find interesting people to tell the story so we ended up with a trader, a factory owner, a nightclub dancer, a failed Yemeni business, a merchant and a labour worker. Later, when we got into the edit, our editor Bonnie Fan suggested we break the story down by processes – so more or less how we get cheap stuff bit by bit. We started with the factories and labour, to the market, to the buyer who buys it and ships it to us, the whole time being told by the 5–6 characters we found. We cut a lot out to focus on that narrative.

How did making the film affect you?

It definitely strengthened my love of China and the documentary process. It’s been a trying and difficult couple of years making this film with little money but to have something out there that people like and people are learning from – it’s in the library at La Trobe now and being shown at UC Berkley – is a very satisfying feeling and definitely worth the time and effort. It’s taught me a lot about documentary and made me love the factual world even more.

Do you think people will be open to your content? It’s like the story of iPhone production; people were appalled but no-one was prepared to surrender their iPhone in protest.

It’s not so much a ‘message film’. We’re not targeting dollar stores or cheap production process; we are simply telling the fascinating story of the city were all your cheap stuff comes from. It’s a human story and I think anyone who is interested will be open to it. I think it’s easier to stop impulse buying than it is to not buy iPhones, which are pretty much necessary and we can only put pressure on companies like Apple and Foxconn to source and produce more ethically. I just want people to think before they buy those $10 earrings that you saw at a little shop on Jonson St or you forgot to buy a friend’s kid a birthday present so you just run buy him an off-brand GI Joe rip-off from the supermarket; those things were made by someone who gets $8 a day and lives thousands of kilometres from their family in a city called Yiwu. Now you know. 

In an ideal world, what kind of impact would you like your film to have?

A few people who watched the film have said that as soon as they go past a dollar store or go into one they think about things they saw in the film.

A friend of mine, who used to source products from cities such as Yiwu and other cities like that in China, quit her job in the fashion industry. It wasn’t so much about the film but she couldn’t handle what she was participating in, what she was adding to – this world of disposable stuff.

So those kinds of reactions are what we’d like from the film. Not so much to ‘boo’ these dollar stores, but to make people think a little bit more before stepping inside.

Bulkland screens on Saturday at the Byron Theatre at 11am.

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