In Focus: Urban Development, Environmental and Personal Consequences

This new series will spotlight dGenerate titles that shed light on some of the weightiest issues in contemporary China. From the environment to government corruption to youth culture, the overlapping concerns of these films create a dialogue on some of China’s most compelling stories.

"Beijing Besieged by Waste" (dir. Wang Jiuliang)

The jargon of “development” is paramount to any consideration of today’s China, from the obvious economic connotations to all the infrastructural expansion that is implicated within. Urbanization, structural changes, and population redistribution have long outpaced established modes of growth and the way life was once understood to be organized.

The signs of development are omnipresent; the vernacular we speak, the smoggy air we breathe. The immediate physical effects of such breakneck urban growth are readily apparent throughout China, but the deeper repercussions—be they ecological or social—of a culture of “development” remains perhaps largely undiscovered.

The documentaries below represent a few attempts to break down some of the effects of this whirlwind of urban development as the philosophy of development at all costs weighs heavily on the physical and social environment of a nation in flux.

Wang Jiuliang maps Beijing's ring of landfills

Beijing Besieged by Waste represents a striking example of guerrilla filmmaking that drives at the heart of a staggering byproduct of urban growth, consumerism, and general affluence: the piling waste of a culture increasingly tied to material. Beijing Besieged addresses a problem that is by no means specifically Chinese, but is imbued with a unique concern for the mounting landfills surrounding Beijing and the trash-scavengers who dwell in these liminal spaces of junk. Photographer and director Wang Jiuliang‘s tactics to find and uncover the stupefying scale and gutting reality of these landfills began with a google maps search and escalate to a revelation that challenges our understanding of so many buzzwords taken for granted: “development,” “sustainability,” and even “waste.”

"Before the Flood" (dir. Yan Yu and Li Yifan)

Over the past decade, China’s mammoth infrastructural projects have been widely discussed by numerous media outlets, though few have examined the social ramifications surrounding these groundbreaking structural paradigm shifts with as much thoughtful grace and insight as Li Yifan and Yan Yu‘s Before the Flood. The city of Fengjie in Chongqing Municipality, a city that has all but evaporated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, has been flooded, reconfigured, and restructured as a symbol of the refraction of history and daily life that can result from such enormous projects. Tracing the individual stories of Fengjie residents and their struggle to preserve their homes and dignity against literal rising tides and hopeless bureaucratic machinery, Before The Flood offers a personal perspective on broad changes that are anything but. Following up this work, Yan Yu returned to the affected areas in 2008 to bring us Before the Flood II, another closely-observed account of a town—this time the historic village of Gongtan located on a tributary of the Yangtze River—and a bitter attempt to rail against the powerful force that threatens to inundate some sense of real life.

"Meishi Street" (dir. Ou Ning)

Another account of citizens fighting to maintain their homes and livelihoods in the face of grand urban development schemes takes a pointedly intimate perspective in Ou Ning‘s Meishi Street. Evicted from their homes and time-honored style of living closely, in shared livelihoods and quotidian patterns in hutong neighborhoods, the interruption of traditional space by the oncoming 2008 Beijing Olympics is told through the perspectives of the citizens of Meishi Street. A unique community filmmaking venture, as well as a poignant examination of the ruptures of both physical and emotional space created by a modern Beijing, Meishi Street is nothing short of an elegy for a lost city and a losing battle.

Development is about looking forward, charging outward and upwards into an uncertain future. But development is also about big plans, large scale, and immense movements that too often eclipse the concerns of the individual: health, family, and what it means to have more. The implications of presence and absence—of traditions, of physical bodies and materials—are delicate elements of this forward movement and nowhere better captured that in the lenses of these dedicated documentarians.