News your connection to The Boston Globe

'Mardi Gras': into the belly of the beads

Ms. Pearl is a bead whore, and proud of it.

Come Mardi Gras time in her home city of New Orleans, Ms. Pearl dons her Carnival-best clothes, draws bull's eyes on her palms, and hits the streets in search of a parade. She doesn't know why she's so drawn to collecting worthless plastic necklaces thrown from moving trucks, but she knows better than to examine her passion too closely.

You don't hold a thing like Mardi Gras beads up to the light. That is, not unless you're a documentary filmmaker without a drink in your hand.

Enter David Redmon, earnest director of ''Mardi Gras: Made in China," who insists on taking a sobering look at the Big Easy's most famous throwaway party favors. Much like that annoying Debbie Downer character on ''Saturday Night Live," he's constantly interrupting drunken revelers with the burning question: ''Where do you think the beads come from?" To which the answer usually comes back: ''Don't know. Don't care. They're beads for boobs, man!"

It's true. Since the late 1970s, when men and women began taking beads in exchange for exposing themselves (currently clocked at every three seconds during Carnival, Redmon contends), a string of shiny baubles isn't just another made-in-China accessory in the French Quarter.

But the item is made in China. And therein lies the rub that Redmon chooses to highlight in his modestly successful if narrowly conceived first film.

At minimum, this two-dimensional documentary does a decent job of displaying cavalier consumption alongside globalization and exploitative manufacturing. While there's nothing unique about the conditions at the Tai Kuen Bead Factory in China's Fuzhou province, where Redmon's camera captures the less happy faces of Mardi Gras-related activity, it is sadly illuminating to see scarred hands producing the necklaces at warp speed, only to later watch the beads land in trash bins and gutters after American partyers have moved on. As expected, the boastful factory owner gets rich while his live-in workers put in long hours for low pay, expose themselves to health risks, and get fined for talking or not meeting production quotas. There's no doubt that it's an important story to keep telling, even if we all know there are far worse factories in China and the rest of the world.

Let's be honest, though. Redmon is attracted to this tale because it exploits an obscene and visually titillating gulf between the haves and the have-nots. ''Mardi Gras" allows for many (pre-Katrina) shots of people flashing their private parts, followed by footage of people toiling in a factory compound surrounded by barbed wire. It doesn't matter that nearly everything you plug in, play with, or put on in America carries a similar moral question. What makes Mardi Gras beads a leading issue is the especially frivolous context that a savvier director might have exploited more wittily.

Redmon's film is a welcome reminder that everything comes from somewhere and responsible people should at least pause to examine the label. For one thing, that's how bigger and better documentaries get made.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives