As H&M, Zara, Uniqlo and other fast fashion brands continue to dominate the globe, an army of underpaid workers, the majority of them women, will keep producing their merchandise at a discount. But what happens when such women, emancipated by employment opportunities that previously didn’t exist, and motivated by dangerous, sometimes deadly working conditions, decide to fight the powers that be?
In writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain’s insightful if somewhat schematic docudrama, Made in Bangladesh, we follow one such female worker — the outspoken and tenacious young Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) — as she makes the bold decision to unionize her factory floor, trying to get her fellow employees to do the same. The process is steeped in threats, red tape and a system clearly stacked against the worker, and yet Shimu persists, even if her own husband no longer has her back.
If Norma Rae comes to mind here — Hossain, who co-wrote the script with Philippe Barriere, cites it as a reference in the press notes — that’s because this film feels like a modern update of the 1979 Sally Field starrer, which dealt with female cotton mill workers trying to organize in rural North Carolina. That said, Made in Bangladesh also feels a bit too preachy in spots, never blossoming into a complex story and treading close to movie-of-the-week territory. But as a look behind that T-shirt you just bought on sale for $9.99 at The Gap, and the human labor, sweat and suffering that went into it, this Toronto premiere definitely deserves wider attention.
When we first meet 23-year-old Shimu, she’s slaving away in a Dhaka sweatshop, sewing low-cost shirts at a rate of up to 1,500 a day. As one of her factory’s more proficient and obedient seamstresses, Shimu has little to worry about, while her marriage to the rather lazy Reza (Shatabdi Wadud) seems to be going well enough.
But when a fire, recalling the 2012 Tazreen Fashion factory inferno (as well as the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse — how many disasters are needed for the world to take notice?), results in the death of a fellow worker, Shimu is interviewed soon after by an activist journalist, who sends her to meetings led by local union organizer Nasima Apa (Shahana Goswami).
There, Shimu learns what it takes to set up a union and hopefully improve her working conditions. It’s far from a simple task, especially in an industry that constantly drives costs to the bottom, pummeling low-wage laborers into accepting the minimum as factory owners try to land contracts with major global brands. The fact that the laborers in question are predominantly young and female, with older men serving as their overseers, underscores a sexist culture where women are expected to be passive servants both on the job and at home.
“We’re screwed if we’re married and screwed if we aren’t,” Shimu says at one point, prompted by Reza’s freaking out because his wife is actually trying to improve her life. Beyond the cussing — there’s a whole lot of it here, reflecting either the class dialect of Bengali garment workers or a certain zeal in the subtitling — that dialogue helps to explain why Shimu, who is better educated than many of her colleagues, seems to have nothing to lose and remains totally bull-headed despite the uphill battle she faces.
Much of the action plays out in simple two shots captured in restricted locations, reflecting what was likely a tiny budget. Camerawork by Sabine Lancelin steeps many scenes in shadowy, dimly lit interiors that have little breathing room to spare. At times Hossain’s scriptwriting can be a little too on-the-nose, and the narrative clearly delineates between the good gals (Shimu and her cohorts) and the bad guys (the managers, the husbands, the public officials) — a fact that may be true in real-life Bangladesh but doesn’t always make for nuanced drama.
Still, there’s no denying the power inherent in Shimu’s grueling pursuit: one which, in many other countries, would simply be a matter of filling out some forms, but here takes on nearly Melvillian proportions of impossibility. That Shimu needs to pull off a few dirty tricks in order to edge closer to the finish line is less indicative of her own failings than of that of an entire system. And yet the price she pays may well be worth it — in any case, it’s surely worth more than all the bargain-bin T-shirts in the world.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Les Films de l’Après-midi, Khona Talkies, Beofilm, Midas Filmes, Cinema Cocoon
Cast: Rikita Nandini Shimu, Novera Rahman, Deepanwita Martin, Parvin Paru, Mayabe, Mostafa Monwar
Director: Rubaiyat Hossain
Screenwriters: Rubaiyat Hossain, Philippe Barriere
Producers: François D’Artemare, Ashique Mostafa
Director of photography: Sabine Lancelin
Production designer: Jonaki Bhattacharya
Editors: Raphaëlle Martin-Hölger, Sujan Mahmud
Composer: Tin Soheili
Sales: Pyramide International
In Bengali, English