“Laws are useless in China,” a frustrated citizen declares, out loud and out in the streets, in the epic documentary We the Workers. Exploitation flourishes, as anyone familiar with labor history (or anyone who’s ever worked) knows, when employees lack leverage and recourse and the government doesn’t have their back. Huang Wenhai’s 2017 film catalogs the exploitation while recording the struggles of China’s nascent union movement against the official and unofficial forces of injustice.
We the Workers plays the opening weekend of "Turn It On: China On Film 2000-2017," a three-week documentary series screening at SFMOMA Jan. 10–27 and streaming on Kanopy starting Jan. 10 in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition Art and China after 1989. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Wang Fen curated the film program, and it’s a monument of investigative journalism and painful introspection.
The shocking opener, Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China, introduces us to families working and living in small-scale recycling plants. In stark contrast to the observational tenor of that film, Ai Weiwei took great personal risks in Disturbing the Peace (2009). In it, he highlights the corruption that killed hundreds of children when their cheaply constructed schools collapsed in an earthquake.
Kanopy, if you aren’t aware of this wondrous perk, is a free streaming service for cardholders of the San Francisco Public Library and other area libraries. Making the "Turn It On" films available in this fashion vastly expands the audience for these vital and important works. Come for the Chinese docs, and stay for Kanopy's collection of works by Luis Buñuel, Agnes Varda, Frederick Wiseman, Konrad Wolf and much, much more.