Beijing Besieged by Waste Screening at AAS Annual Meeting: Interview with Director Wang Jiuliang

By Christen Cornell

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Note: Beijing Besieged by Waste will screen at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) Film Expo, Friday March 16 2012 in the Sheraton Centre Toronto, as part of the AAS Annual Meeting. Q&A session to follow. The film is available as part of the dGenerate Films catalog.

Full schedule and details for the AAS Film Expo.

The Fringes of Beijing B02

In October 2008, photographer Wang Jiuliang began a project investigating waste disposal in and around Beijing. Following the trucks that collected his daily rubbish, he discovered eleven 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 gleaned in the trash, and making their dinners from the city’s food scraps. They raised pigs on leftover organic matter. Local shepherds brought sheep and cattle to graze between the bottles and plastic bags.

The speed and scale of China’s development always makes for a particularly shocking story, here easily interpreted as ‘the dark side’ of China’s economic miracle, which in many ways it is. However the problem of junk is one shared by all consumer societies. To quote Wang, ‘Many of us believe that we are completely disconnected from the garbage we produce once it has left our sight. Few realize that their garbage has not gone far … ‘

Shocked by what he had found, Wang developed his project into a powerful documentary film called Besieged by Waste [????], released in 2011 and now available for distribution throughdGenerate Films. 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.

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Gaoantun Landfill in Chaoyang District, Beijing

CC: Could you tell me what sparked your interest in making this film? Did you have a sense of where your rubbish ended up?

WJL: To be honest, before filming Besieged by Waste I had no idea where my rubbish went. I’d lived in Beijing for five years and had never asked myself that question. It was only after I took on this project that I started to ask myself: Where does my rubbish go? And the answers to that question were revealed in the process of filming.

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 (a project called Supermarket that is still ongoing now). These pictures were just supposed to provide some background for that project, to look into the current situation of waste disposal in Beijing, 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 rubbish 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.

Read the rest of this interview at Artspace China