China’s Environmental Woes, in Films That Go Viral, Then Vanish
BEIJING — Achieving fame was not hard for Wang Jiuliang, but staying in the spotlight has proved more difficult.
His career as a documentary filmmaker has followed a distressing pattern: spectacular internet reactions to his movies and videos on environmental topics, followed by their rapid disappearance from the web in China.
The latest, in January, was a video showing him standing before a large screen displaying appalling photos of indiscriminate quarrying and other environmental woes and delivering a talk about them. In one, mountaintops have been obliterated. In another, an aerial shot, a rocky landscape has been pockmarked with gaping holes where the stone was extracted.
The video became an instant internet sensation, but four days after it was posted it disappeared.
Another documentary of Mr. Wang’s, “Plastic China,” about the plastic waste industry, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, also went viral in January before quickly disappearing from the internet in China.
The wiry, 40-year-old Mr. Wang said he had no idea who had deleted the items or why. “Some invisible power,” he joked in a recent interview over coffee in Beijing’s central business district.
Before the talk on the environmental destruction from quarrying, Mr. Wang had spent the last decade filming China’s mostly unregulated garbage dumps and their environmental impact. He produced two critically acclaimed documentaries that made him an authority on the subject.
His first, “Beijing Besieged by Waste,” released in 2010, explored the garbage dumps encircling China’s capital. Before then, few Chinese thought about where the waste went. The scenes of people and sheep grazing through the piles of garbage, and of trucks apparently dumping whatever they like with no authorities in sight, were a shock to most.
“It is very important work, a milestone,” Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a telephone interview.
Born a peasant’s son in a village in China’s eastern Shandong Province. Mr. Wang sold cellphones and vegetables to save for college, finally making it to the Communication University of China in Beijing, at 26, to study photography.
In 2008, a year after graduating, Mr. Wang went back to his village to shoot a photo project and was horrified by the devastated landscape he found.
“I spent my childhood summers catching locusts and fish. Now where are they? Are there still tadpoles and frogs in the creek? No,” he said. That prompted him to question what had happened and who was responsible.
That quest drew him into environmental issues and he became curious about garbage and where it went in Beijing. Following garbage trucks, he found hundreds of trash dumps outside Beijing’s fifth-ring road. The dumps, he found, were unregulated; trucks brought in whatever they liked without supervision.
After three years of filming — and 9,300 miles on his motorbike — he marked on Google maps all the dumps he found. At the end, he produced “Beijing Besieged by Waste.”
The Beijing government has since cleaned up more than 80 percent of the garbage dumps, Mr. Wang said. “I found some answers. But I also started to have more questions,” he said.
In 2011, wanting to learn more about how garbage is recycled, Mr. Wang went to California. In one of the biggest waste recycling companies in Oakland, a manager pointed to a truck loaded with containers of plastic waste that was about to be shipped to China.
“I’m not a nationalist at all, but somehow his words provoked me,” Mr. Wang said. “Because I saw this junk — dirty and detrimental — going to China.”
Another six years’ work went into finding and documenting what happens to imported plastic waste. The discovery shocked Mr. Wang. Thousands of family-run factories operate in the open air shredding the waste plastic into small particles to sell to factories in southern China, which then make them into new plastic goods. The air and nearby rivers are heavily polluted, he found. Workers sifting through the waste with their bare hands are often pricked by used needles.
“I’m not against recycling plastic waste, I’m all for it,” Mr. Wang said. “But absolutely not this kind of raw method of recycling without protection and producing more pollution. The profit and cost is disproportionate.”
For one and a half years, Mr. Wang lived in a rented place near the two families he filmed, in a small town largely dependent on recycling imported plastic waste in Shandong, his home province. He hung out with the families every day, eating together and sometimes helping them with the work.
The final product was “Plastic China,” an 81-minute film featuring the two families, and a 26-minute version that explains the industry itself and every character in its chain, like waste suppliers in the United States and Europe and Chinese workers who make their living from the trade.
The longer version is nonjudgmental, showing the tough conditions faced by people scratching out an existence in a tough business with razor-thin margins. Its images are raw and bleak: dying fish in a nearby contaminated river are picked up for a family meal; a baby is born amid mountainous heaps of plastic; Yi Jie, 9, eldest daughter of one of the two families featured, cut pictures of ballet flats from an English magazine, just to have them to look at.
Yi Jie was not going to school when Mr. Wang started to film, because her father said he did not want to pay the fees. When Yi Jie turned 11, Mr. Wang and the film’s producing companies spent their own money to send Yi Jie back to her hometown in Sichuan to go to school.
“They work for scanty wage and their health is impaired. This needs to be addressed from different sectors in a society,” Mr. Ma said.
Mr. Wang said there were handsome profits to be made from plastic waste, but mostly in the international trade.
But “Plastic China” does not seek to criticize specific groups of people, said Ruby Chen, one of the film’s producers. Rather, she said, everyone should reflect on their own roles in the trade after watching how the two families live.
“If I’m a policy maker, how to solve problems? If I run a small factory, is there a better way to do things? If I’m a boss, is it really necessary to use all this plastic packaging?” said Ms. Chen, joining the conversation with Mr. Wang over coffee. “People who have watched it have told us: ‘I will need to think carefully whether to use plastics.’”
Mr. Ma compared Mr. Wang’s films with Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” a seminal work that helped start the environmental movement. “Recycling plastics could have been a good thing, but if it isn’t done well, it causes secondary pollution,” he said. “Plastics can’t be degraded or buried. So it’s very important to mobilize people to reduce using them.”
Mr. Wang said he was perplexed by the censorship of his work on the internet. “Our goal is to let more people see it,” he said. “We hope they would pay attention and changes could be made. But if the channel for communication is jammed, I have to reconsider what our efforts mean.”
Still, it is not stopping what the filmmaker is, in his own words, destined to do. “He won’t stop caring. Otherwise he couldn’t even sleep at night,” Ms. Chen said with a laugh, “He is unrelenting. If he thinks this is important, he does it at all costs.”