If you ever read the papers, you’ll have heard of the collapse of the Bangladeshi garment factory Rana Plaza, which killed over 1100 people in April 2014. You’ll know that most of the clothes sold on the high street are made in low-cost countries by workers whose weekly wages are considerably lower than the money we pay for a pair of jeans. But how much do you know, and how much do you dare to find out? We bet you a year’s worth of shopping that these seven documentaries will transform the way you look at (and buy) fashion for good.
In this investigative documentary, BBC reporter Richard Bilton exposes how employees in the Bangladeshi garment industry are forced to work up to 19-hour days and locked in the factory overnight by security guards. He also casts light upon how the industry built on a web of lies – when a Panorama reporter visits the factory portraying a Western buyer, he’s given timesheets claiming that shifts have ended nine hours earlier.
Handprint (Mary Nighy, 2013)
Winner of a 2014 Young Director Award, Mary Nighy’s short film Handprint might not be a documentary in the strict sense of the word, but we’ve included it as it’s very much based on reality. Starring Elettra Wiedemann, the daughter of Isabella Rossellini and granddaughter of Ingrid Bergman, it’s an incredibly poignant reminder of the real people who make our clothes.
The shirt on your back is an interactive documentary about the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse. Its interviews of people who were personally involved in the tragedy, losing family members and friends. Be warned. It may reduce you to tears. The on-screen counter, which displays the time you’ve spent watching, as well as the money made by a garment worker and a British clothes retailer in that time, is an eye-opening reminder of the incredible unfairness of the world as we know it.
Cotton Road (Laura Kissel, 2014)
Cotton Road follows the road travelled by cotton from rural farms in South Carolina to Chinese factories, showing us what it goes through before ending up in our super cheap clothes. Its focus on workers’ personal experiences, combined with astonishing facts about the human and environmental impact of this globalized process, makes it all the more powerful.
Thread (Michelle Veigh, 2013)
Thread revolves around the fashion industry’s health effects on both people and the planet. From insecticides, pesticides and outrageous water consumption to genetically modified seeds, the documentary drills down to why cotton production is one of the world’s most highly polluting industries. It’s a call for change, championing the rise of eco fashion and more environmentally conscious consumption.
Yet another documentary about the collapse of Rana Plaza, you might be excused for thinking. But even if you do, this is one to watch. From the panic and despair in the aftermath of the event it cuts straight into British girls’ fashion haul videos, subtly telling us again how twisted our throwaway consumerism is. But as the Guardian puts it, Clothes To Die For does a lot more than just pointing the finger of blame: “That’s why this documentary is so good. It is not just saying: boo, sweatshops. It unpicks a horrific event, looking at everything that conspired to make it happen (turns out I – maybe you too – didn’t know the half of it). It’s not overly worthy, or preachy, or sentimental. But nor does it let you forget that it’s a desperately sad story about people.
Sweatshop – Deadly Fashion (Aftonposten, 2014)
Produced by the Norwegian newspaper Aftonposten, Sweatshop – Deadly Fashion was a social experiment, which sent three teenage fashion bloggers to see for themselves how garment workers in Cambodia live. The trio had to spend a day sewing in a factory and cook a meal for 10 people on 9 dollars, their combined daily salary as garment workers. It’s worth persevering though all the five episodes to see how the bloggers’ world view slowly changes – from “they’re used to it, I’m sure they’re happy” to breaking down in tears once they realize the unpleasant truth.
Once you’ve finished our documentary marathon, please let us know your thoughts. Did you get through them all? Were you particularly moved by one, and if so, why? Did we leave something essential out – if we did, we’re ever so keen to find out and get watching.