Sky Ladder scheduled to stream on Netflix. Shown: Remembrance, chapter two of Elegy: Explosion Event for the Opening of Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave, realized on the riverfront of the Power Station of Art, August 8, 2014. Photo: Lin Yi, Courtesy of Cai Studio/Netflix ©

I had a profound experience watching the documentary “The True Cost” last week at a Sustainable Works screening at the Aero Theatre.

“The True Cost” is about consumerism at its most destructive, the ethics of “fast fashion” that forces people in developing countries to work in unsafe, horrendous conditions for as little as $2 a day; the massive pollution that clothing manufacturers release into the environment and the health issues that follow; the unconscionable cost of lives lost in the race to keep prices low for us and profits high for corporate overlords.

I am often inspired by “cause” documentaries, but this one made me take immediate action. In need of a coat and a jacket for an upcoming trip, I went to the Colleagues, a clothing re-sale store on Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica that sells previously worn clothes, many by top name designers.

For $150, I got a coat, a jacket, two scarves, two bracelets, two necklaces and a pair of earrings. Thrift store seekers tell me I could’ve saved more but that’s not the point. The point was not to purchase any new items.

No, I am not starving a third world employee by doing this. And yes, I am just one person. But the most important message of this film is that the consumer dollar dictates what corporations do, and we have the power of our purchases to persuade those at the top that those at the bottom deserve more humane treatment and working conditions.

You could consider buying organic cotton, going to a “green” designer or store that specializes in eco-friendly fashions and fabrics. But going to a resale store is a revolutionary act, and I just joined the party.

There once used to be seasons, when fashion houses created the “fall” look or the “spring” look. But now it’s all new, all the time, and prices are spiraling downward so that everyone, everywhere can have something new that they can discard once the next “hot” item hits the racks. And what happens to those discarded items you “donate” hoping that they are going to charitable causes? Not what you think.

This is creating havoc in the lives of workers in countries so poor that any job, even one paying slave wages, seems better than nothing. And some economists defend the practice of bottom feeding for the lowest manufacturing prices as “giving third world countries the opportunity to better themselves” and “relative to the working conditions in those countries, these jobs are on par with their economies.”

Don’t believe it. These are abused workers and now their environment is being polluted with life- and health-threatening toxic waste, not to mention crumbling buildings that have collapsed and killed hundreds in Bangladesh, for example.

As has begun to happen with food, we should be questioning where our clothing comes from and how it is possible to sell a new jacket at a place like H&M for only $9.99…it’s untenable. Time to wake up.

Don’t go searching for the “The True Cost” in theatres; you might wait too long to see it. But it is streaming on multiple platforms, including Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and VHX.

Please watch this film. We need to raise the consciousness and consciences of multitudes of American shoppers to help assure the safety and dignity of workers across the world who are quite literally slaving away to clothe us.


Maybe you’ve seen the video of this phenomenal work of art on Facebook, which is where I first encountered it. But seeing it on the big screen is the only way to do it justice. “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” is a stunning documentary that will blow your mind.

This world-renowned artist’s name may not sound immediately familiar but he created the fireworks display for the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Sky Ladder is a 1,650-foot ladder of fire that climbs into the sky, a project that took this Chinese-born artist 20 years to accomplish. We’re witness to its creation and completion throughout the film.

Do not take your eyes off the screen even to blink for the first few minutes of this movie. The quick-edit montage of his many fireworks projects will leave you awed and breathless.

With Sky Ladder as the hook, we follow Cai’s amazing career and observe the process of using gunpowder and fireworks as his artistic medium.

This is the man who created the “Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10” (1993), involving a six-mile-long gunpowder fuse that extended beyond the Wall at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The fuse burned for around 15 minutes after being lit, creating a dragon-like pattern that resonates with China’s mythological heritage.

But we begin with his family history and early experimentation with calligraphy and oils, later with gunpowder explosions on paper, and we come to understand both his culture and his practice, leading up to the work of his lifetime, the Sky Ladder.

This is a movie you won’t soon forget. Its world premiere was at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and Netflix will release it theatrically on October 14 in L.A. and New York for a one-week Oscar qualifying run and on the streaming service. With an Oscar winning director at the helm (Kevin McDonald) it may have a good chance.

By Sarah A. Spitz

Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at

Photo Caption: Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

By Heather Wines