Beijing Besieged by Waste Reviewed in Senses of Cinema

In the online journal Senses of Cinema, Christen Cornell reviews the environmental documentary Beijing Besieged by Waste (directed by Wang Jiuliang) which will screen this weekend at the Melbourne International Film Festival, as part of “Street Level Visions“, a series of contemporary Chinese independent documentaries.

Excerpts from Cornell’s review:

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.

Learn more about Beijing Besieged by Waste.

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