AWFJ EDA Award @ DOXA 2017 Filmmaker Interview: Heather White on COMPLICIT

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HEATHER WHITEWhile people in the West use smartphones to live healthier, happier lives, the construction of such devices has horrific health effects on the people who actually make them. Complicit shines a light on the dark irony of the global electronic manufacturing industry in China, where 90% of the world’s consumer electronics are produced, including 70% of its cell phones. While people in the West use smartphones to live healthier, happier lives, the construction of such devices has horrific health effects on the people who actually make them. Complicit shines a light on the dark irony of the global electronic manufacturing industry in China, where 90% of the world’s consumer electronics are produced, including 70% of its cell phones. Read what Complicit co-direcxtor Heather White has to say about her compelling expose and how it came to be.

How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

I went to China in early 2013 to research a book on the mega-factories with 200,000 workers that have sprouted up in Southern China to produce the iPhone and iPad. My first week there I discovered hospital wards filled with injured teenagers who had lost their right hands while working in smartphone factories. Next we met several workers with leukemia, also from working in electronics. I decided I had to make a documentary film although I had no experience in film – to share the story with the world as soon as possible. In 2014 I launched a 10 min trailer that went viral, getting 1.2 million views and 400 news articles written about it worldwide.

What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

I learned that the occupational health situation in the electronics industry which often mis-labeled itself “Cleantech” for the past 10 years has been destroying the lives of thousands of workers, most of them under the age of 24 in China.

What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

Our situation was unique because we were filming below the radar in China. I was the only non-Chinese person involved with the filming. My colleagues were courageous and adventurous and did everything to get us access to the workers and their families, dodging security guards and on occasion leaving hospitals under pursuit. I learned a lot about how to get the shots you need under difficult circumstances!

What were your biggest challenges?

Raising the funds was a huge challenge, and I had been a professional non-profit executive and fundraiser raising over million dollars a year to support an organization I founded. It didn’t prepare me for the lack of resources available for a film raising awareness about an urgent global problem. I know this is not news, but documentary film resources are even less available than funding for global human rights issues.


Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

Normally I would say yes that almost everything in life is unique – when experienced as a woman. In the case of making my first film, I felt it was very important to try to connect the audience emotionally with the characters, to feel something at a deep level because these are young people whose health and in some cases lives have been destroyed working for global corporations. It was a goal for me that viewers experience at some level of empathy the hardship our characters are facing, and hopefully we as consumers in North America will decide to do something about it, and demand change.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to spend the next year on outreach with COMPLICIT, taking it to television, community centers, film festivals of every size, and to schools. We all own cell phones and the problems revealed in the film connect to all of us. I want teens and young people to understand that the global economy currently operates without protections for either workers’ health and or our own safety from poisonous chemicals used in production. There is no oversight and no testing. Babies are playing with iPads that were made with toxic chemicals and minerals. No one is accountable at the moment for the hazardous toxins used overseas in making our smart devices. The industry needs stronger standards, which they will not accept unless consumers demand it.

Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

I am interested in storytelling that poses characters’ struggles as central themes, and while entertaining us also make us care and feel something we haven’t felt before.

Barbara Kopple – for several of her moving, serious films about people at the margins of society, especially ‘Harlan County, USA’. For decades she has tackled complicated issues with great nuance and powerful storytelling skills.

Ava Duvernay for the many firsts she achieved with ‘Selma’ and ’13th’ while maintaining a resilient attitude and not letting disappointments dampen her spirit and graceful public demeanor. With a $20 million budget Selma was the high point of a decade of steady building, and I’m sure huge challenges on her part, toward receiving the well-deserved opportunity to direct feature films.

Liz Garbus for her recent film ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’ She tackled four decades of disparate archival footage resulting in an excellent documentary film with multiple layers of nuance and insight. ‘Bobby Fisher against the World’ was also a rich biographical film that poses deep questions about important topics well beyond the game of chess.

What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

I would encourage them to prioritize connecting with women’s professional filmmaking associations such as NYWIFT in New York City and Women Make Movies who provide a great film community for female directors and producers. They for fiscal sponsorship, great workshops, connections to women working at all levels in the field – they help you build a community friends and people to call for advice and direction on where to go to find whatever you need. They also help with grants, which for me was huge. My project was funded largely from grants and donations from foundations.

When reaching out to major donors it came as a surprise to me that several male supporters gave $10K- 25K, yet the largest grant I received from an individual female donor was $7K. I did receive some small foundation grants that were managed by women, but these were not donations coming from them directly. The difference is important. I also found this situation when running a nonprofit for a decade. In my experience working on human rights issues for the last 20 years women donors are far behind men in putting their money where their mouths are, and I think it may be due to psychological issues – fear and a dysfunctional relationship to money.

If my experience as a documentary filmmaker and nonprofit director is reflective of the norm, women film directors and producers have to accept the reality that their projects will continue to rely on the approval and largess of male sponsors. I wish it were different. Women will donate their time and efforts in networking and hosting events beyond what many men will offer – but they aren’t writing the big checks. I hope that will change for those in a position to do so.

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