T-Shirt Travels by Shantha Bloemen – the power of using the personal and everyday to better understand what is happening in the world.
November 6, 2009
“T-Shirt Travels” is a look at the business of used clothing from the west being sold to people in Zambia. The heart of the story, though, is the manipulation and abuse of Zambia by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In borrowing money from the World Bank to survive, Zambia has had to accept conditions and restrictions placed on its activity. As a result, Zambia is now in greater debt than ever, and faces its worst economic crisis to date. As someone says near the end of the film, the situation in Africa today truely amounts to economic colonialism.
This documentary by Shantha Bloemen takes a materialist approach to looking at the huge, overwhelming problems of Zambia. By materialist we mean taking something people need and use — clothing — and looking at where it comes from, how it gets to the people who need it, and in this case, what happens to it when it serves a new need and moves on. The story of coffee, or spices or oil are more obvious examples of materialist perspectives. The consideration of everyday things, this way, is deceptively powerful and of great value when it comes to knowing about the world . In an interview with the filmmaker, below, she also points out something most artists realize in approaching their work: the more personal one’s focus, the more universally it applies. Seeing how the everyday and personal extend out in the world — and affect us in return — may be the only way we are going to see what actions we can and need to take to create change.
Comments on the documentary by the artist:
“There is no doubt that the documentary is more relevant now as the debt debate has grown louder and louder, and more people keep on realizing that the current form of globalisation, which assumes that the free market will be able to solve all of the world’s problems, is not working. Significant gains in debt relief have been made, but they are hardly enough. Sub Sahara Africa still pays a billion dollars a month in debt servicing while an estimated 7000 people die of AIDS a day. And the prospects of an increase in foreign aid levels to the UN prescribed 0.7 percent of a country’s GNP still seem remote. Most countries give far less, including the US as the stingiest of all the OECD countries, gives less than one quarter of one percent, a decrease of an eighth in the last twenty five years. Indeed, development assistance to Africa has decreased from 19 billion dollars to just12 billion this year, a far cry from the type of Marshall Plan Africa needs.
And while it is easier to look at the failure of African leadership, without asking a deeper seated why, we will once again fail to find honest and workable solutions to create systems that make governments accountable to their people rather than the dicates of international finance.
I believe we are at a juncture where we need to be brave enough to confront the global inequalities that we have created, rather than in fear, retreat behind closed walls, and wait for the inevitable chaos and violence that will follow.”
An inteview with Shantha Bloemen, as an activist/filmmaker. This interview and more about the artist and her film” T-Shirt Travels” can be found here, at Independant Lense:
Director / producer Shantha Bloemen discusses her favorite T-shirt, working in Zambia, and her activist roots.
How did you first become interested in Zambia? What brought you there?
My interest in Africa was sparked at University [in Australia]. I had always been interested in the world, especially in understanding why some parts are poorer than others. After completing my degree, I was eager to go to Southern Africa, but not certain in what capacity. By chance I met Greenwell Mukawi, a project manager for World Vision, just before I left Australia. He invited me to volunteer on a community development initiative in a remote part of Northern Zambia.
I lived in the Chiefdom of Kopa, a remote network of 18 villages more than 50 miles from the nearest town with running water and electricity. Most people in Kopa were subsistence farmers, growing what they needed and then trading the surplus for other necessities.
What inspired you to make a film about this subject?
The film was in many ways the result of this initial stay in Zambia. For my first few weeks I was in culture shock and I quickly became dependent on Agnes, a Zambian woman who became not just my good friend, but my guide, translator and close advisor. Agnes, and her husband Paul were from a generation of Zambians who had benefited from good education. While I lived in Kopa, Paul got sick. He had malaria, not uncommon in this part of the world. By the time we got back to Mpika, we found Paul on his deathbed. Barely three months after I met Paul, a young energetic and clever father, he was dead, leaving behind a young widow with two young children. It was only a year later that Agnes lost her youngest son Simon from the disease. The experience had a profound impact on me.
Although I realize we live in a world of double standards, it didn’t make it any easier to accept. Paul’s death made me rethink the value of my own life. I knew if I had been sick, I most likely would have been in the best hospital or evacuated from the country. The division seemed so great, yet so unnecessary. Witnessing and experiencing Paul’s death made the issues of development, debt and AIDS seem much more real. His death was no longer some academic debate in some book or part of an abstract statistic but someone’s reality. This was about circumstance, situation and lack of access to resources.
Was there anyone you set out to interview that refused to talk to you?
The biggest challenge was getting an interview with the commercial dealers in the United States. Many of them are based in the New York City area where I live, but many of the companies are family owned and refused to let us shoot in their warehouses or to do an interview on record. It took us months to track down Barney Lehrer, who works as more of a middleman between exporters and importers in poor countries. Although the secondhand clothes industry defends its business, I think they also realize that the less people know about how much it is actually a business—versus a charity—the better it serves in their interest. I also have heard that many of the warehouses employ cheap illegal labor, so would not like to be exposed to scrutiny. In a way, it is a topic of another documentary.
What’s your favorite T-shirt of all time that you saw in Africa?
The T-shirt that left the most profound mark was actually in Kopa, the chiefdom where I lived in Northern Zambia. The T-shirt, white and tattered, worn by a village elder, read “I danced at Elijah’s Barmitzfah 1986.” I remember thinking what wonderful irony that this T-shirt, most probably from New York, is now being born by a born-again Christian village elder in Africa.
The other funny aspect of shooting T-shirts was asking people who they thought they people were. For example, we had a great conversation with the young man who was wearing the Kurt Cobain T-shirt along the banks of the Zambezi River. When we asked who he thought he was, he answered an Englishman who lived in London.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
T-SHIRT TRAVELS was intended to make people rethink or at least question some of our assumptions. It doesn’t pretend to be a definitive investigation into the secondhand clothes industry or an absolute account of the complicated debate on third world debt and globalization. I think today we get so caught up in the details that it is difficult to step back and try to think about the big picture. My hope is people will be inspired to read more, to ask more critical questions about the world we live in and not be so ready to believe in the simplistic and often a historical reasons why we assume Africa is a basket case but instead ask why things are like they are and how we can address the structural causes.
What should Americans do with their secondhand clothing? Is there a way to donate clothes directly to Africa so they could get them for free instead?
It is a difficult question. I very much believe in recycling and don’t think we should be putting clothes into landfills. The other part of the equation is that secondhand clothes are now part of reality in most African countries. People can get good quality clothes and they now want to have secondhand clothes. It is difficult to reconcile, because on the other hand they also want jobs and development. There are a couple of different charities that collect clothes here and in Europe and then send them straight to Africa, where they still sell them to individual traders, but where the money they make from the sale of the clothes stays in the country, to be used for development projects. There are also charities that send clothes directly to Africa or use the clothes locally in shelters.
What were some challenges and obstacles in the making of the film?
The greatest challenge was getting back to Zambia to shoot. It took a year and half before I had raised enough money to go back with a small crew that included my best friend Anna. Since transport in Zambia was difficult, I decided to buy a car in South Africa and drive up through Botswana.
The highlight of our shoot was sleeping under the stars on the Zambezi River in a remote fishing village. It was only ten days later, though, when Anna and I both came down with a bout of malaria and lost almost a week out of the schedule. Fortunately, we both got treatment early and recovered quickly.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
When I set off to make T-SHIRT TRAVELS, I had every faith that the documentary would be seen. As the project progressed and I confronted the many challenges of independent filmmaking, I admittedly had my moment of doubt. But after succeeding in getting T-SHIRT TRAVELS made and broadcast, in being part of creating a dialogue and seeing people’s reactions, I was reassured that documentary can have an important role to play in stimulating us to see and experience the world differently.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Thank god for public television. Life is always about compromises but I think that ultimately as a producer you have to decide whether you want your project to be commercially viable or you make the film you want to make, and then take the risk it may never be seen. Public television, and in particular Independent Lens, allows films that don’t necessarily conform to a formula or tell stories that may question the status quo to be seen. If it were not for public television, I don’t think T-SHIRT TRAVELS would have made it on to television.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Ultimately, I am an activist, who has seized on filmmaking as a tool for expressing that agenda. There are many ways to generate debate, but ultimately I think documentary is an important one that can reach people in many different ways. To me the challenge is to translate much of the “serious debate” for example that is contained within the U.N. or the academic world, and make it more accessible to a larger audience. For myself it is breaking down the walls and trying to simplify the story in a way that we all can digest it, and then as citizens take a more active role in determining what sort of world we all want to live in.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Never give up. Despite the hurdles, the doubts, the financial worries, if you believe in your story, then pursue it and you will succeed.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
In terms of documentary, I have to admit Michael Moore illustrates how combining humor and a persuasive argument can make us question and think. And yes, he may be controversial in some of his methods, but I actually think he has done an amazing job at getting a large population to think. I don’t believe in the idea of objectivity—I believe every story is told from one perspective or another, so I believe that documentary has a huge potential to inform but also to present different versions of what we consider the “truth” and challenge us to rethink our assumptions.
Chris Marker, the French filmmaker, has also illustrated how, by combining the visual with ideas and interpretation, an audience can be forced to look at the larger picture though a different lens. Terre Nash, the Canadian filmmaker, has also done a remarkable job at taking ideas and translating them into stories.
Ultimately, I am influenced by films that use the personal to connect with the universal, but also force us to revalue the big picture that we often hold as absolute. We live in a time where it can be unsettling, even potentially dangerous, to question too much, but to me that is where filmmaking can play a crucial role. I want to come out of a film forced to question or think. That to me is the potency of this art form.”
– Do you believe there is a point where objectivity must be traded in for telling a story as you believe it is? Do you think mainstream media holds to principles of objectivity at all? Is objectivity, when presenting and discussing important social and world issues ever a principle to be held to, and if so, where and in what circumstances?
Do you think artists, writers and others, in presenting issues that concern all of us, have a responsibility at all to break things down and translate them from organizational or academic levels to works and expressions that can be accessed by greater numbers of people?
August 5, 2009
The post below has been taken almost completely from an artist/ writers’ entry into the blog HudsonWrites, which there is a link to in this blog below, so you can go read this and other entries for yourself.
In this entry, the artist discusses how the words of cartoonist/ author Lynda Barry, in a podcast discussion he hears her have with another artist, helps him understand, as an artist, “purpose in art” – purpose in his work as an artist. I have given into copying almost the entireity of this post because it is all so valuable, I feel. I find it very inspiring.
“January 20, 2009”
“I had the pleasure of listening to a dialog between the great cartoonists Lynda Barry &Alison Bechdel on a podcast called “Live Wire!” recently and Lynda in particular hit on something that I had been thinking upon a great deal lately. And that’s the idea of purpose behind art.
I struggle with art a lot of times because it feels like such a selfish endeavor. Many times it’s driven by pride or money or fame… particularly in the movie industry (although I imagine it’s true of all art, I just have less experience with other industries.) Even the idea of struggling artists who create art “just for themselves” really turns me off. I think anything done “just for yourself” is a bit of a waste. I think it’s why I am happiest when I’m creating in a collaborative environment, whether that be a comic book artist or a writing partner, where I’m forced to bump into people. I believe that we’re put here on this earth to touch people and change lives, through our friendships, through our giving, and certainly through our art.
Lynda spoke to this during the conversation with this brilliant story:
“You all know what phantom limb pain is? That’s that thing where you lose part of your limb but you still have the sensation that it’s still there. There was a guy who had a particularly intractable case of it. He had lost his hand from here down. But his sensation was that his hand not only there, but it was in a really painfully clenched fist. He was in misery, the pain was constant. His life was really deteriorating. They didn’t know what to do for him.
And there’s this brilliant neurologist named V.S. Ramachandran who has done a lot of amazing work with imagery on the brain. And he had this idea, and his idea was, well, let’s make a box and we’re going to put a mirror in that’s slanted this way and there’s a hole on this side so that the guy can put his hand into the hole on this side, and then when he looks down it’s going to be the illusion of seeing two hands. You follow me on that? And so the guy did it. So he sees two hands. And Ramachandran says, ‘Open your hand.’ And he did. And he saw the other one open. And the pain went away.
And I believe that’s what images do. That there’s something about – whether it’s in another book, or it’s something that we make – there’s something about seeing something – and I don’t mean literally, necessarily, although with art that’s true – there’s something about working with images that can unclench something that we have no other way to get to.”
I was listening to the program in my car and after hearing this, I literally cheered. It was exactly everything I had been thinking, put into a simple, beautiful illustration.
What got me thinking about all of this was a lunch with a very good friend of mine named John Ray. John’s son, Marcus, was one of my best friends growing up and he took his own life almost 10 years ago now. After the death of his son, John became a pastor. And he did this in part, I believe, in order to help the hurting. Here is a man who has been through the worst pain imaginable, who very easily could have turned all of that pain inward and slowly morph into a twisted bitter old man. But instead, he took that pain, as inexplicable as it is, and used it to help others. Myself included.
When I had lunch with John, I was really struggling with my place in life. I was broken, not sure of what I should be doing. Just burnt out on trying so hard to be successful, in life and in art. And John said to me with such clarity, “Hudson, what you should be doing is taking the gifts God has given you, and using those gifts to tell your story. To share with others the questioning and the brokenness and the hurt that you’ve been through in order to help those who are on similar paths.”
This, to me, is art. Art is personal. It’s vulnerable. Art is not teaching. Just like John, I have no more answers now than I did before the pain. A lot of times, there are no answers. But I do know how to come through to the other side.
After the above illustration, Lynda goes on to talk about how Alison’s fantastic graphic novel Fun Home “opened a lot of fists” with it’s auto-biographical portrayal of a girl dealing with the death of her father who was a closeted homosexual. It is a story exploring death and life and sexuality and father/daughter relationships in a way that is completely unique to Alison.
The greatest desire all of us have in life is to know we’re not alone. It’s these unique, personal stories that speak to the hearts of the lonely.
We create, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. To share beauty and to ask questions… to challenge minds and to warm hearts.
Tell your story through your art. You never know whose fist you might be opening.”
I’ll just say that “finding purpose in art” seems also like finding meaning in any work and the importance of that. This seems on one hand like Marxist philosophy – not to be alienated from ones work. But then it also seems like the common sense of wanting to enjoy your work so you can do well at it – and vise versa.
We have the stereotypes in the U.S. of the artist as either someone who doesn’t want to work or work hard- or as a crazy person whose work calls on the psyche and an imagination. There is also the whole set-up to see artists as representing eccentricity or over-sensitivity – I guess it’s a stereotype of a marginal person, which we know can either be accepted as a neutral tendancy, or romanticized as a requirement or expectation. So it seems understandable that artists would find it easy to feel guilty about being artists when they have to fight these cliches.
I just wanted to say that even as a promoter and admirer of the arts and artists of all kinds, I still hold fast to a quote by Thomas Mann when I think of brats and a few intolerable tendancies of people I knew in art school. “Art is an excuse for nothing.”
Hudson and Lynda go way beyond this superficiality; they find the values of well-being and self-knowledge just as important as they do comradery and community in their identity as workers.
In Chicago’s public school system, I know a lot of schools have lost most of their arts programming like theatre, music facilities, and course offerings in the visual arts. Part of this is because funding for urban education is not as good as in most smaller scale communities, or more specifically, well-to-do communities like white suburbs or private school systems anywhere. Funding always abandons the arts first.
I guess most kids have to be self-taught to stay actively engaged in nurturing artistic talent on their own until they get a little older and can maybe find opportunities for arts-specific education that helps them direct their talent. I guess there are still some programs for young educators in the arts to offer special learning opportunities in cities or in verious locations for disadvantaged kids. I just don’t think the overall environment for the arts flourishing is very good in the U.S. now.
Maybe art education and the chances of becomming an artist of some kind are better in the U.S. than they are in Bulgaria or the Yukon, I don’t know – I kinda doubt it.
I guess I can extend my inquiry here. With the exception of something like the WPA during the Great Dression, has the U.S. been, and remained to now, a fertile ground for art compared to other western nations, or is the U.S. as backwards in supporting the arts as it is in supporting healthcare, education, workers rights, and the legal status of a an individual compared to that of a business’ legal status?
Ok, I guess I’m a bit guilty of morphing this from a story of inspiration and encouragement into one that might be too fraught with negative perspectives and maybe a tiresome political tirade.
Thank you, Hudson, for all you’ve shared …. thanks everyone for reading and any comments you might have.
Link to Hudson’s article, above:
July 28, 2009
There should now be a link on my other blogs to “nell’s writing,” which is also the writing part of dark age days.
To go to the writing blog of dark age days please click on this link and find whatever I’m working on there. Eventually, I want to share a writing blog with other writers – fiction, personal essays, or memoir. That could be another part of this current blog, the “writing” part of dark age days, and the main part could be for progressive politics, and another part could be for art, photography, philosophy. I dunno …. Ideas?