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The Mast-Head: Behind the Junk

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 09:41

All but the greenest among us really have no idea where it all comes from, the consumer products that pile up like falling leaves. Superficially, we know that much of what we touch every day originated, in a geographic sense, from China, but not what that means or by whom.

To one extent or another, I am able to sneak away to see a few movies each time the festival comes around. Most years, there is one film that sticks with me, and this time it was a documentary called “Ascension,” a kaleidoscopic dive deep into Chinese production of goods — and wealth.

It seems to me that we Americans kind of assume that the things we surround ourselves with are made not by actual people, but through some form of immaculate extrusion. In fact, human hands (and backs and elbows and so on) are everywhere in the process.

Ever wonder how those threaded inserts get into the gilded tops of your shampoo and conditioner bottles? I didn’t either. And don’t ask where custom latex sex dolls come from; I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers. And yet, I think at some level we knew this already. What I don’t think we understand is the scale of it.

In one brief scene in the film, a woman worker carries a huge bag of empty plastic water bottles to a vast pile of more full bags. These are taken to a hopper, where they are dumped into the machine that will fill them and screw on the tops. A machine wraps on labels, and another worker checks them for squareness as they continually move past her on a conveyor line.

Workers’ hands sew Polo jeans and assemble cellphones. A man walks quickly in a silk-screen room at a blanket factory, ladling on dye, going from one end of the line to the other and back again.

“Ascension” won this year’s feature documentary category at the festival.

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