Censorship in China has long posed a substantial obstacle for its documentarians, unable to depict the country’s controversial subjects without backlash from the government or societal harassment. But now that combating pollution has become a recent priority for China, which pledged to cap its carbon emissions by 2030, environmental issues have been freed from the film industry’s long list of taboos.
Due to lack of approval through the censorship process, independent films are typically not shown in theaters, leaving filmmakers to sell their work to TV stations and garnering a very narrow audience of students and film buffs. And when authorities closed down the Beijing Independent Film Festival in August due to President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on freedom of expression, distributors had an even harder time discovering new films.
“If you want to make a film about Tiananmen 1989, it will be impossible,” said La Frances Hui, film curator at the New York-based Asia Society, to the Associated Press. “If you want to make a film about the legal justice system, you will get into trouble. But for now I think the environment is relatively safe, but not too many people have dealt with this subject matter.”
One independent Chinese filmmaker has: Wang Jiuliang exposed the country’s shocking landfills in his first film Beijing Besieged by Waste after uploading it to online streaming sites for free. He began as a photographer, when in 2008 he followed a motorcycle that collected and transported waste around his neighborhood to illegal landfill sites. Jiuliang would capture these areas with his camera, and, over the course of three years, plot hundreds of these locations around the capitol on Google Earth. “My aim was to reveal the problem and then to solve the problem through making a film,” Jiuliang told AP.
In 2010, a few of his photos were displayed at an exhibit in Southern China before his film was even finished; once the official Xinhua news agency caught wind and asked Jiuliang to write an internal report, it wasn’t long before local officials started paying attention, too. “It got a lot of attention by mainstream media and the authorities, so it created an impact that is kind of unheard of,” Hui said.
Already discussing with main state-run broadcasters and media reporters about his upcoming film Plastic China, Jiuliang is making a notable breakthrough for the country’s industry, where independent filmmakers have trouble overcoming hierarchical criticism and persecution. He still deals with local harassment—being chased by dogs, threatened and punched—but, now that it aligns with the Communist Party’s mission, his work is generally welcomed by a national tolerance for his efforts against pollution.
Though he is still working with CCTV to “weed out sensitive content” from his new film, such as a scene where villagers are criticizing the government, he hopes Plastic China will air this month.
Watch the trailer for Beijing Besieged by Waste here: