Waking the Green Tiger: Documentaries from the Front Lines of China’s Environmental Crisis, Asia Society’s five-film series on environmental concerns in China, opened last night to a full house. Given China’s seeming disregard for the environment and its cautious (at best) tolerance of public interest advocates, people are particularly curious about environmentalism in China, and the films in this series are uniquely positioned to spread awareness of China’s environmental problems and activism to a large audience.
Before the series began, we had the opportunity to conduct an email interview with La Frances Hui, Asia Society Film Curator, to learn about the focus of the films, how the series came together and their reception, and documentary films in China.
Much of what’s written about environmental issues in China is about air and soil pollution and is done with an apocalyptic tone, but these films refreshingly seem to look more towards the personal and cultural impacts and efforts to improve the situation.
Nature and culture exist hand-in-hand. While we turn our focus on environmental issues, we must tell the stories of how people’s lives are affected. Many issues are alarming: air quality, water safety, food contamination, deforestation, and desertification, but it’s encouraging to see signs of effort and success in improving the environment.
In Yak Dung (dir. Lanzhe), we see families on the Tibetan Plateau use yak dung as a renewable energy source, a traditional practice that has been proved sustainable and sensible. Waking the Green Tiger (dir. Gary Marcuse) tells the story of the grassroots movement by activists and local farmers to curb a huge dam project. Filmmaker Wang Jiuliang’s Beijing Besieged by Waste, a documentary that surveys landfills in Beijing, garnered so much attention that the Beijing municipal government decided to invest an extraordinary amount of money to manage and regulate the waste industry. The most effective documentary projects are the ones that juxtapose environmental issues with the devastating human and cultural impacts.
Could you briefly elaborate on how this project was conceived, how Asia Society’s Center of U.S.-China Relations, the Chinese NGOs, and Chinese and American documentaries filmmakers found each other, and how the topics were selected?
This film series at Asia Society New York is the third part of a green documentary exchange initiative, a multi-year project by Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations to promote the understanding of China’s environmental challenges through documentary film. It began in November 2013 in Guangzhou, where Chinese environmental NGOs and documentary filmmakers, both American and Chinese, were convened to discuss the use of the documentary medium to tell stories about the environment. The events included film screenings and filmmaking workshops. A selection of films was screened at Asia Society Hong Kong following the Guangzhou events. In both Asian cities, we included American documentaries and invited speakers from the US to offer a chance for international exchange.
How were the films received when they were screened in Hong Kong? Have the films been screened in China?
Our screenings in Guangzhou and Hong Kong included both Chinese and American documentaries with post-screening discussions with filmmakers and environmentalists. They generated a lot of attention and discussion. It doesn’t matter that a film is about waste disposal in Beijing, a dam project in southwest China, the impact of gold mining in Alaska and tourism around the globe; it is clear that we cohabit this planet earth and must protect our environment together. It is also interesting to see how quickly filmmakers and environmentalists think about applying others’ experiences in dealing with their respective immediate concerns. A sense of camaraderie was apparent throughout these events.
Have documentary films made an impact in China in recent years? Are they readily available or popular? Are there any topics that especially resonate with the Chinese?
Many Chinese documentaries we see in the West are made independently. Sometimes referred to as underground films, they are not widely shown in China, especially those that deal with politically sensitive topics such as human rights, social justice, and political dissent. Filmmakers could suffer official and unofficial repression for bringing these issues to light.
One would think that environmental issues, a lot of them tied to official policies of urban and economic development, are taboos as well. But the case of Beijing Besieged by Waste offers an inspiring example. Filmmaker Wang Jiuliang endured great risks to make the documentary. He was chased and attacked when he was filming landfills, many of which were illegal operations. When the film came out, it attracted the highest level of attention in the Chinese government and led to real action taken by the Beijing municipal government to improve the condition of waste management. Environmental issues are so urgent that the government doesn’t want to look away any more. This also signals the power of the rising middle class, who are increasingly making demands to protect their hard-earned wellbeing.[Ed. note: Activist Shi Lihong, featured in Waking the Green Tiger, said during the discussion and Q&A after the film’s screening that people in China have very limited access to the film and that for one screening, the film had to be excised of references to Mao Zedong and his campaigns to use human effort to conquer nature in the name of progress.]
The series continues tonight, August 20, with director Wang Jiuliang (王久良) previewing and discussing his upcoming film Plastic China. On August 25, A Farmer’s Struggle and Yak Dung will be screened, and the series concludes on August 27 with The Last Moose of Aoluguya.
Image: Andrew Shiue