About halfway between Japan and the East Coast of North America lies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an immense swirl of plastic fragments estimated to be at least twice the size of France. A morning’s research on the area will elicit stories of albatrosses found dead with plastic constipation, of more plastic fragments in the water than plankton, and of litter still hanging around from the 1940s (1). The rubbish comes from both land and sea, with approximately 80 per cent originating from beaches and stormwater drains and the rest being thrown overboard by sailors. Unsurprisingly, the swirl is growing with every year – a colossal aquatic rubbish dump essentially hidden from human view. If in the West we have the option of outsourcing our rubbish to the albatrosses (or poorer developing nations), in contemporary China people generally have to learn to live with it, gleaning from the opportunities it presents, and coming to terms with its gradual infiltration of society. In China trash is more in your face, and questions of materiality are more urgent within everyday life.
It’s no surprise that a number of recent films and artworks emanating from the country have been concerned with this issue of waste, as its cities develop skywards and the logics of consumerism set in. China has a habit of confronting us in this way, pointing out the flaws in our consumer design by showing us an enlarged and greatly accelerated version. One such recent art project is that of photographer and filmmaker Wang Jiuliang who, in October 2008, began his own investigation of waste disposal in and around Beijing. Following the trucks that collected his daily rubbish, he discovered 11 large-scale refuse landfills scattered around the close suburbs of the city, each one growing daily alongside the skyscrapers, housing developments, and general urban boom that surrounded them.
Beyond this, Wang also uncovered an underground industry in which rubbish was being removed from the inner city and taken to hundreds of illegal dumpsites around the urban fringe. Here, people were making their homes and their living, building houses from discarded construction materials, wearing clothes they had picked out of the trash, and making their dinners from the city’s food scraps. They raised pigs on some of the leftover organic matter, and boiled the rest down to a slimy oil they then sold on to city restaurants. Local shepherds brought sheep and cattle to graze between the bottles and plastic bags, having lost their original lands to these illegal landfills and China’s explosive urbanisation.
Shocked by what he had found, Wang developed his project into a powerful documentary film called Weicheng laji (Beijing Besieged by Waste), released in 2011 and screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival as part of the “Street Level Visions: Indie Docs from China” strand. Shot with both a photographer’s eye for aesthetics, and an activist’s commitment to social change, the film is a striking reminder of the inextricability of society and its trash.
“At the beginning I just wanted to take a few pictures of some Beijing rubbish dumps for a project I was working on at that time”, says Wang.
But then we found ourselves exposed to something far beyond anything we could have imagined. For one thing, we didn’t expect there to be so many dumps so close to Beijing. We also didn’t realise how significantly this waste affected people’s lives. But then we found ourselves confronted with all this information, and that’s how I ended up spending three years on this project. (2)
While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is disturbing for its distortion of our ideas of the ocean as something distant and vast, and its impact upon aquatic wildlife, the visual shocks in Beijing Besieged by Waste are largely in the rubbish’s immediate social impact. It is the images of people living within the refuse that distress us: of children running through it with school bags, of people eating dinner beside it, of shepherds bringing cattle to forage among the colourful plastic. It’s a bizarre industrial warping of what we want to be a pastoral scene.
Such images force an awareness of the realities of endless material production, and the finiteness of our physical world. They melt the boundaries between the urban and the rural, between the here and the “out there”. They make us ask about the origins of what we ate when we were last in Beijing, driving a kind of honesty about the connection between what we produce and what we consume. Where activists in the West used to dump the rubbish produced by McDonald’s restaurants back onto their street-front entrances, Beijing has here returned this rubbish as a matter of course, recycling it by virtue of necessity, folding it back into human society and its overall development project.
“Many of us believe that we are completely disconnected from the garbage we produce once it has left our sight”, Wang commented in another recent interview. “Few realize that their garbage has not gone far. The garbage, albeit in a different form, always comes back….” (3)
Like many of China’s independent documentary films, the making of Beijing Besieged by Waste was itself a form of political activism, and in a country where such research can be dangerous. Wang used satellite images from Google Earth to look for signs of landfill sites, racked up 17000 kilometres on his motorbike following garbage trucks around Beijing, and kept a deliberate low-profile throughout his investigations. With each new discovery, Wang added a yellow dot to his map of Beijing and, in the end, had identified more than 460 landfills and tips situated around the outskirts of the city – a rim of consumer refuse surrounding this glittering international metropolis like a scum ring in a bath. Wang also lived on and off with the communities he was documenting, learning about their lives at ground level, interviewing them, and capturing their relationships on film.
This kind of guerrilla filmmaking is more possible than ever today with the availability of cheap technology, and is in many ways what currently defines the independent filmmaking movement in China: just one person with a camera, and a commitment to exposé. When I suggest that Wang is part of a larger Chinese activist filmmaking population, however, he laughs: “I wouldn’t say there are a lot of us”. “Censorship and control of the media is still pretty strict in China, so independent directors here are not as free as people might imagine. Especially people willing to deal with sensitive subjects – there are very few documentary makers like this. There aren’t many films made about environmental issues in China.”
That said, Beijing Besieged by Waste is perhaps one of the rare examples of a documentary film that has had an effect on Chinese government policy. In an unexpected turn of events (and one which helps to nuance stereotypes of a Chinese government deaf to the needs of its people) the film was included in an internal Party report by the Xinhua Media Agency and later watched by Premier Wen Jiabao. According to Wang’s contacts at Xinhua Media, the Premier reviewed the information in the film very closely, and later issued orders for local officials to attend to the illegal or mismanaged sites.
“By 2011, 80 per cent of the dumps had been closed or were being dealt with”, says Wang. “That’s a pretty big difference, and it was very comforting to me. It made me feel like my work hadn’t been for nothing.”
What ultimately happened to the waste, or to the people who had been making a living off it, is the next question. It could be argued that Wen’s response is typical of official window-dressing, addressing the symptom but not the cause of the problem. Consumption continues, and with it its waste. The transfer of Beijing rubbish further beyond the city limits is only its relocation to another neighbourhood. However the making of films such as Beijing Besieged by Waste is itself part of the process that creates space for discussion, especially in China where the sphere for such publicly critical reflection is comparatively limited. Like Josh Fox’s Gasland (2010), about coal gas seam mining or “fracking” in the United States, Beijing Besieged by Waste exposed an environmental problem of national concern, raised public awareness, and has had powerful flow-on effects.
Like Gasland, however, Besieged by Waste is also highly cinematic – atmospheric even – and in this sense is distinct from much of the contemporary Chinese documentary movement that typically sees documentation as its primary purpose. The opening scene of a sunset over a rubbish dump is serene. An image of a lake near Beijing airport littered with disposable plates from aeroplane dinners that resemble waterlilies. Wang manages to find poetry in the filthiest and most abject of places.
“I’ve been working as a photographer for more than a decade, so perhaps it’s almost a habit for me by now to try to make something look beautiful”, says Wang, laughing at the irony of his own comment. The beauty, he says, is also a way to help people stomach his message, almost like an aesthetic trade-off for the ugliness of the information:
I want my audience to open their eyes. I want them to really see this problem. And I want them to see the rubbish dumps against a bigger backdrop – against the skyscrapers, against the fields and the rivers – so that they can also see the connection these places have to the broader environment and to our lives in general.
This sense of sad contradiction is ultimately what pervades Beijing Besieged by Waste: the glamourous and the wretched, the affluent and the effluent, the gap between the promises and the brutal costs of China’s economic boom.
It’s easy to interpret a film like Wang’s as the dark side of China’s development, which it is; but the problem of what to do with all this material humans create is one shared by all consumer societies. There may be differences within China – those relating to its particular political structure, or poverty, and of course scale – but the underlying problems remain the same.
“On the surface the film is about rubbish; that’s the ‘topic’”, says Wang. “But what I really want to investigate here is the problem of urbanisation, because the problems of rubbish, the expansion of the city, increasing population and consumerism are all connected.”
Again, in terms of urbanisation, China really rams these problems home – it often offers the most extreme examples of the world’s environmental problems. But then it also lies at the coalface of global overpopulation and industrialisation. It is relatively easy to turn a blind eye to the depositories of plastic waste in the world’s great oceans (and there are more, by the way: an Indian Ocean, and a Great Atlantic Garbage Patch, in addition to that in the Pacific), but harder to ignore human refuse when it seeps into the realities of urban, even middle class life. We’re most definitely living in a shrinking world, and China brings that reality firmly to society’s door.
If China is the coalface of the world’s environmental problems, it perhaps also represents one of the frontlines of political documentary filmmaking at present, relating stories about one of the world’s most rapidly changing societies within a climate of restricted political expression. In contemporary China, activism feels particularly urgent; the problems are more up-front and so the response is often more vital. To make a film like Beijing Besieged by Waste, for example, takes courage, curiosity and vision, the potential repercussions of questioning the nation’s program of economic development never being entirely clear. Is Wang Jiuliang an optimist, then, I ask? “Of course I’m an optimist”, he replies. “If I were a pessimist I wouldn’t have done what I did. It’s only because we have hope that we are still striving.”
- Richard Grant, “Drowning in Plastic: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Twice the Size of France,” The Telegraph 24 April 2009: www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/5208645/Drowning-in-plastic-The-Great-Pacific-Garbage-Patch-is-twice-the-size-of-France.html.
- Interview with Wang Jiuliang, conducted by Christen Cornell and published at Artspace China 6 March 2012: www.artspacechina.com.au/?p=491. All further uncited quotations are from this source.
- Wang Jiuliang, “Beijing Besieged by Garbage”, Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review no. 1: http://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/photo-essay/beijing-besieged-garbage/statement.
Wang Jiuliang will be a guest of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which will feature his film Beijing Besieged by Waste as part of the “Street Level Visions: Indie Docs from China” strand.