Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan

2001, 45 minutes
Producer/Director: Tia Lessin
Executive Producer: Gillian Caldwell
Distributed by Witness

Interview with Behind the Labels filmmaker, Tia Lessin


What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?

As a documentary filmmaker, I am inspired to tell stories that aren't otherwise being told by the mass media. And I challenge myself to tell them in a dramatic way. I am most interested in stories about corporate abuses of power, about the struggles of immigrants, stories not only about people who have been victimized, but people who are fighting back against great odds. And I use the camera to confront people and institutions responsible for abuses.

Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan -
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?

As the granddaughter of an immigrant garment worker, I have long been outraged that manufacturers and retailers rely on debt laborers even in the 21st century. I was moved by the hidden camera footage that a Witness partner had gathered, and I was invited to weave that footage into a documentary short.

What were your goals in making this film? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film and what would you like to see happen with the film?

My goal in making this film was to personalize the stories of nameless, faceless garment workers, to break through class barriers and language barriers and cultural barriers and create a connection between American women who buy the clothing and the third world women who make it. I wanted to show these women not as victims, but as women who were fighting back.

I also want the viewer to understand the system of debt bondage, a more complicated story than that of sweatshop labor.

I would like this film to be seen in classrooms, living rooms, union halls and church basements. I would like viewers to take action after screening this. This action can be as simple as writing a letter to a manufacturer, or as bold as going to rallies and speaking out against labor abuses. I would like viewers to see these women's faces when they take a piece of clothing off the rack and understand their lives are intertwined.

Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan -
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?

It was very difficult to interview women who were in debt bondage and not feel I should be able to help them escape. But I knew that the problem was enormous and institutionalized and that I couldn't make a difference through personal contact; that documenting the plight of these women and recording their stories on camera would ultimately be much more powerful and more radical than any small act to help individuals.

I never hold my emotions back when filming (I experience sadness, outrage, anger, joy). If I'm personally affected, I know my audience will be as well. I think that's a strength, not a liability.

Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?

My initial feelings did change during filming. This is an important part of the process of a filmmaker where she/he is being impacted by the subjects and by the story and being open to new understanding of the material.

Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on U.S. Saipan -
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

I recently produced Michael Moore's new film "Fahrenheit 911" about America in the aftermath of 911 and the Bush administration's misguided and dangerous war on terror.


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