Growing up in Michigan, home of the Motor City, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of pride when it came to buying products made in the United States. We weren’t alone either. I still have friends from my hometown who refuse to buy foreign-made cars because it felt like an affront to so many family members and other people in the community who worked for one of the Big Three. And on those rare, usually awkward, times when I was a teenager going shopping with my mother, I remember seeing her look at the back of the products to see where they were made, only to put the items back in disgust after seeing that they were made in China. Suffice it to say that I can relate to documentary filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga’s mother, whose boycott against all Chinese-made products forms the central thesis explored in The China Question.
Silva-Braga crafts an interesting and entertaining documentary that comes across like a long-form 60 Minutes investigation combined with a History Channel one-hour special. I mean that in the best possible way, too. Given how long Silva-Braga was traveling and how many people he must’ve seen, the amount of footage must be incredible — as is usually the case with documentaries. Being able to turn all of that footage into a well-crafted, coherent film clocking in well under two hours is quite the skill. And one that Silva-Braga showcases nicely in this excellent film.
In his travels across both the United States and the world’s most populous country, China, Silva-Braga interviews local workers, business owners, American and Chinese diplomats, university professors, historians, and other intellectuals in order to get a better sense of the dichotomy between American values and the rise of Chinese manufacturing. Basically trying to get to some decent answer to whether or not Americans should have any moral qualms about supporting a country that silences peaceful dissenters by throwing them into prison for decades and restricts what content their citizens can access on the Internet and in their media. Granted, just asking the question in that way, framing his film around his mother’s boycott, implies that Americans should feel some guilt and responsibility for buying products that were likely assembled in a sweatshop halfway around the world by millions of people working for maybe two-hundred dollars a month. A decidedly liberal point of view to be sure. However, Silva-Braga is careful to not showcase his personal politics explicitly, front and center, in the film. Silva-Braga understands that the world is much more nuanced than that, concluding that there are no easy answers. Nor any simple explanations for how to handle the realities of a globalized, industrialized world. Thankfully, Silva-Braga merely comes to only one conclusion; and despite a liberally-minded hypothesis, it’s a simple, pragmatic understanding: boycotting Chinese products won’t solve anything. That said, it’s the least comforting of conclusions since his travels and investigation essentially say that there’s nothing individually that we can do about American jobs being shipped overseas to prop up the ballooning population in China at the expense of our own middle class.
A running device in the film has Silva-Braga asking Americans around the country what they think of when they hear the word “China”? They mention the various typical responses, which he then uses to explore just what the realities are within China. We hear “communism” – a loaded word, by any account, especially in our current political discourse – and Silva-Braga shows what this means through talking to people both in the countryside as well as in the cities of China. In fact, his ability to show the complexities and odd symbiosis between their politically oppressive atmosphere and burgeoning market economy offers a well-rounded view of the country that many might not know. It’s decidedly not a one-tone, pro-American/anti-Communism piece of propaganda. And even when he points out the negatives related to a society where the government controls the media with an iron fist – such as how many Chinese have no knowledge of the events that occurred in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989 or not being able to easily access Twitter or Blogger – it’s not done in a way that has us pity the Chinese people for their plight. Surely, Silva-Braga has trouble comprehending how they could not know something that’s such a prominent event in recent world history, yet it’s more of a surprise at how something we find so important can be so ignored, not a testament of how worldly we are and how closed off they are. My one criticism of this entire aspect of the film is that Silva-Braga doesn’t show the same photo of the man standing in front of the line of People’s Liberation Army tanks to any Americans to see if they know what it is. Granted, it’s different when it’s a big event that happened to your own country, but at the same time, I imagine that most Americans wouldn’t be able to talk intelligently about what happened that day either. They certainly wouldn’t be able to know what happened just by hearing the date. And it’s hard to critique another society’s inability to know its own history when we have our own Congressional representatives who don’t know the difference between the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Still, Silva-Braga handles everything and everyone in this documentary with respect making this anything but a Michael Moore knock-off. As a filmmaker, it’s clear that he’s much more interested in the Errol Morris and the Mayseles Brothers form of documentary. While not nearly as masterful as those genre-defining filmmakers, Silva-Braga takes a less politically charged, pre-determined position on the content, instead letting the interviewees’ responses tell the story. Despite being heavily involved in the film itself – though nowhere near as much as Moore – and narrating the piece, Silva-Braga keeps it from becoming sensational, letting the viewers come to their own conclusions and leap to their own judgments. His is a documentary film as done by a journalist, not a propagandist. As he runs down a line of people waiting for hours on Black Friday to get into Best Buy for amazing discounts, he doesn’t look down on them nor question the motivations behind these people wanting to spend their money on admittedly pointless items like a label-maker simply because it’s a good deal. He does this in order to simply iterate just how Americans are. And he uses that same open-minded camera on the people of China. His intention not to solve the titular query, rather to shed light on something that tends to get mentioned constantly in our current national discourse but rarely gets explored enough to where many people aren’t informed enough to have much of an opinion, provides a few more perspectives for the rest of us to continue asking the questions and, probably most likely, just come to the realization of how complex and large an issue it all is. As much as we might want to only buy American products as a way of exercising our consumer right to choose which companies to support, the reality is that market forces aren’t the only thing at play here.
In a time when we’re all promised easy answers and quick fixes to large problems, Silva-Braga’s film reminds us that’s not the case and does so without talking down to anyone. We might not be able to solve all our issues, but at least we can approach them with open minds and civility. Both noble ideals that make for a balanced, entertaining yet educational film by a mature filmmaker who will hopefully continue to make this brand of documentary in the future.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars