The Ugly American gets her day in court with two documentaries this week, and the verdict is mixed. Mardi Gras: Made in China records the Girls Gone Wild spectacle of the Bourbon Street celebrations, where gaudy plastic necklaces get flung around in a drunken quid pro quo of boobs for beads. (All together now: “Show us your tits!”) Director David Redmon also visits the girls and women who produce the necklaces in the prison-like Tai Kuen factory compound in Fuzhou. They start as early as age 14 and work 12 to 20 hours per day for 10 cents an hour, their hands blistered and bloodied and their dreadful pay routinely slashed when they don’t meet their impossible quotas.
Redmon shows his trump card when he screens footage of the New Orleans festivities to the Chinese workers and vice versa; the laborers are mostly amused that anyone would covet such ugly baubles, but back at Mardi Gras central, the images from Tai Kuen push the needle off the record and turn the house lights on the party. “It’s not fun,” understates a suddenly sober reveler. Also featuring the sanguine realpolitik of the rich, tyrannical Chinese factory boss (whose favorite word seems to be “punishment”) and his richer American outsourcer, this sly, engrossing doc is an expert riposte to smug proponents of the fetterless free market.
Liz Mermin’s The Beauty Academy of Kabul also rests on a cultural exchange, beginning in summer 2003 as beauticians arrive in the blighted city to teach their trade to an eager inaugural class, some of whom still wear the commonplace burka. The idea isn’t as odd as it might first appear, since running a salon is one of the few socially acceptable means for a woman in Afghanistan to earn an income. The execution, however, evokes a particularly outlandish Christopher Guest mockumentary. A vast foghorn of a spiky-coiffed woman hollers at her giggling pupils that Afghanistan’s postwar progress depends on their attaining “a more modern-type look . . . Yer stuck in a rut, guys!” Another recommends meditation to a woman feeling bullied by her husband and children and later adds, “I’m a hairdresser—I heal people.” And prim blonde Terri is a role tailor-made for Catherine O’Hara, especially when she advises that students who have trouble sleeping “should speak to a professional”—this in a city where running water and electricity are luxuries.
The movie carefully obscures its attitude toward these stunning Samaritans, or so it would seem. When Terri declares that her “inspirational” pupils are “moving on. . . . They’re not dwelling on the past,” Mermin cuts to a picnic of returned Afghans on the site of their former homes, long since bombed to oblivion by the Soviets—the ruins of the past dwelling all around them.