‘Complicit’ DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: A Harrowing, Powerful Look at the Real Price of Our Devices


Complicit is a harrowing and powerful documentary that may be set in fast developing China, but it raises an ethical question that we should all consider: From the smartphones we swipe to the Fitbits we wear, what really happens along the supply chain? Directors Heather White and Lynn Zhang make audiences face the uncomfortable truth that there is a devastating human cost to the conveniences we enjoy on a daily basis.

In today’s China, millions of ‘migrant workers’, mostly young people, travel from their hometowns in the countryside to the big cities in search of financial opportunities. Many of these workers are relegated to repetitive and often unsafe work practices in the numerous factories that drive the booming economy, with electronics constituting a large part of the manufacturing pie. Indeed, China produces about 90% of the world’s consumer electronics, including smart phones, personal computers and cameras.

Most factory workers endure long working hours, no ventilation, and can be exposed to deadly chemicals that have severe health consequences. The documentary interviews a litany of young workers, mostly females in their early 20s, who describe the dire conditions they endured in order to earn money and the consequences this has had on their health. While developed countries have stopped using cheap solvents and carcinogens such as Benzene for more than 40 years, some Chinese factories still use them to save a quick buck. For example, solvent n-Hexane is used to clean electronic displays on iPhone devices because it evaporates three times faster than the safer alternatives. However, prolonged exposure to n-Hexane can lead to nerve damage, cancer and paralysis. In one disturbing scene, a young female worker is shown struggling to walk down a hallway following her exposure to the poisonous chemical.

The film explores the issue of occupational disease from the perspectives of various players: from the sick young workers in hospitals expressing dismay about being a burden and worry to their parents, to bereft mothers and fathers trying to navigate the legal hurdles to get compensation for their deceased child, and to the activists fighting to effect change. A lot of the footage is sourced from undercover workers and activists, which makes the documentary all the more compelling.

The main activist the filmmakers follow is Yi Yeting, a victim of benzene poisoning, as he leads the Guangzhou chapter of Labour Action China. While battling bouts in hospital because of his work-induced leukemia, amidst authorities shutting down his premises, and his own worries of not being around to see his young boy grow up, Yi‘s passion for justice and hope for change is truly remarkable.

The main factory under the spotlight of the film is Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, which has Apple as its biggest client, responsible for around 50% of its sales. And yet, despite the title of the documentary and the spotlight placed on particular companies, the filmmakers do not spend much time railing against consumerism as a whole and the audiences’ complicity in the issue. Instead, they focus on how human rights groups such as Labour Action China and others around the world are championing for better conditions for workers in the electronics industry.

Complicit is a call to arms. There is no Hollywood ending, despite official statements from the big brands, but the documentary is nonetheless a success. It is riveting, moving, and often painful to watch, and it deserves to be seen by all.


Screening at the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Details, sessions and tickets HERE.