Looking at the global economy, we can recognize it as a machine with no understanding for human physiology and perception of time. The global market is a machine that runs twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. We still accept the norms agreed on in the nineteenth century, we know when to go to work and when to go to bed. Activities of social movements of the twentieth century pushed one more element into the time scheme- free time (as a euphemism for a second shift, necessary socialization, care for the ones in need in family or next of kin). This machine keeps on searching for new places in the competition for the cheapest labour. One such place is Cambodia, another Southeast Asian country that has, like many others, become a world factory producing various kinds of goods. The Kandal province surrounding Phnom Penh is the site of the largest number of textile factories employing more than half a million people including child labourers.
Pavel Jestřáb has been focusing on the area of Southeast Asia for some time. In his older works there is a clear ethnographic interest and an attempt at its understanding through live and artificial folk culture. Comparing Taiwanese, Thai and Moravian folk tradition led to unforeseen or performative meetings. Artist as an etnographer is a position that can be traced in the tradition of European art back to the 18th century. It is part of the concept of European universalism where the measure is the level of orientalization or its questioning. Comparing animistic and buddhist practices interlinked with Christian iconography of Moravian countryside as interpreted by Pavel Jestřáb ironizes the eurocentrism of such concept and points out the impossibility of authoritative readings of other cultures from the position of central Europe.
The videomovie “Distressed” is a step outside of this etnographic point of view and shows women in Cambodia in the larger context of anthropological constants.
The author focused on production, i.e. he focused on labour itself. If we wanted to view Jestřáb’s movie as a document, we would come to the conclusion that “civilization” standards in Cambodia are not really that different to most of the ones in the Czech republic. Low-paid jobs and time demands do not allow for more than what we see in the case of the workers speaking on camera: work (here 11 hours in a factory), then two hours of socialization and care for children and then sleep, the rest of the time is for food. Life reality of most of the workers of global economics. In our environment, manifestation of the seemingly late capitalism is more moderate.
„Distressed” is not a documentary. It captures the complexity by unexpected approaches composing the final image. By composing shots together and accelerating them. Working conditions are shown in the rhythm and sequences of sounds of a sewing machine. Its characteristic sound in a way moves the dull time forward, in the never-changing embroidered pattern. The machine sets the rhythm and the always same knots on the thread do not allow for any exceptions in the form of different life varieties. This pattern is the pattern of capitalism, a neverending competition for gaining access to the cheapest labour. For many women and girls working in the factories, the humble earnings is their only hope and the only possible future without alternatives. Despite that, girls and women hum or sing songs about different worlds and hopes. The songs are based on the buddhist doctrine about reincarnation, about the possibility of being born again and better, into a better world. They are part of the older, precapitalism matrix, where there were altrnatives and possibilites of escapes from the bleak reality.But even these traditions can be forgotten. As we learn from the only direct speech, the time left for social life of collective singing is extremely short, and over the course of one generation it is not only song thats can be forgotten, pushed away by the string of work in a factory, sleep and time for food. There will be nothing left, there is no time for collective memory. The mundane description of a working day from the lips of one woman thus already sounds as a song of the new postcapitalism age. The lyrics are not mythical storytelling or amorous singing, but a short declamation without emotions.
The whole machine work cycle of a worker, including sleep, told in several sentences. Karaoke reffered to in the subtitles running under this testimony shows a new form of sharing and condensation of future social anger. The opression creates a new kind of statement and could mean a start of new traditions. This is followed by another motive that seemingly departs from the movie, a professional Psara dancer perfoming in a Phnom Penh house’s yard. Apsara is the reresentation of female spirit manifested by decent movements and dance, based on buddhist and hindu traditions. The dance refers to a resillient energy that cannot be sewn into a pre-set machine pattern, even if all traditions are forgotten. It shows hope because there are still things that cannot be destroyed even by a seeminlgy neverending hunt for profit.
The title “Distressed” refers not only to desperate working conditions and the condition of the workers, but maybe even to one actual product of textile- the sought after and fashionable „distressed denim”. Jeans that are supposed to look used and worn out. In some sort of twisted logic people in rich countries, from where textile factories have been pushed in the competition for the cheapest labour, wear ripped jeans. They uncousciously show the true character of the conditions of its production. As if they were transparents of the impoverished, hung on the naked bodies of the narcissists of the richer part of the worlds.
Taipei / Praha 2019