Documentary films are without a doubt one of my favourite film genres of all. There have been too many over the years to note here, but I for one cannot resist, say, the agitprop of Michael Moore’s work in Bowling for Columbine and Sicko or Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Then there are documentary gems like Canada’s The Corporation by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott and the lesser-known Swedish eco-masterpiece The Planet. Documentary films may manipulate and may be subjective in the mirror they hold up, but they have the power to jolt, to shock, to move one and to even change one’s worldview like no other genre can. The True Cost by Andrew Morgan is one such film.
The true cost here is that of the fashion industry and the havoc that it wreaks on society, in particular the poor and women in developing countries, and the environment. The documentary shows us, for example, the devastation on the community that occurred with the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which resulted in the deaths of over 1000 textile workers who had been working in the most appalling conditions at the lowest of wages. It also shows the environmental devastation that occurs in countries throughout the developing world due to chemicals and other toxins being spewed from dye-making and other textile-related factories. And, very cleverly, the documentary painstakingly shows the correlation between this assault on labour and nature and the ‘cheap’ T-shirts and throwaway fashions that so many of us love to buy. Except that those clothes and accessories hardly come cheap, do they?
A real eye-opener is the fashion industry’s ‘fast fashion’ concept, in which new fashion comes out nearly every week and doesn’t follow the ‘seasons’ that traditional fashion does. It was a master stroke by major fashion retailers and even higher-end fashion houses – now people can buy more, more, more because fashions are constantly changing and so cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s sickening, actually. Morgan’s film subtly explores what all this rabid consumption of fashion does to us as humans. Without us realizing, fashion wreaks havoc on our values as consumers (and how awful is that word?) and even on the moral decisions that we make. There is one superb scene in the film that shockingly drives this point home: it is a montage showing shoppers going haywire at some horrendous Black Friday sale, juxtaposed against a torrent of scenes showing the social, labour and ecological horrors that allowed those cheap sales to occur. All of this is set to Natalie Taylor’s rousing and perfectly appropriate song “I Want It All”. Magnificently edited and photographed, this one scene is the anchor for the entire film, it’s very heart and soul.
So, is this documentary preaching to the choir and just repeating what many people know anyway? I would take exception to that notion. The ills of the fashion world regarding cheap, sometimes even child, labour and environmental damage have been well documented in recent years. But The True Cost puts them into sharp, shocking focus in a way that is tough and honest yet very watchable. This documentary has single-handedly changed the choices that I need to make when buying my clothes. I am empowered and my worldview has been altered – for the better. How many films have the power to do that?
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