Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Visions of a New China: Beijing Besieged By Waste

Like goats, sheep can evidently eat anything, but it is not particularly pleasant to watch them do it. A herd grazing through the garbage at one of China’s many illegal landfills is one of the many unappetizing sights to be found in Wang Jiuliang’s Beijing Besieged by Waste (trailer here), which screens at the Asia Society this Saturday, concluding their recent Visions of a New China documentary film series.

Wang is a photographer who has documented the ring of landfills encircling the capitol city in various multimedia projects. He has visited hundreds of festering dumps, some legal, others not. Yet, environmental controls appear nonexistent regardless of the site’s status. In at least one instance we see raw untreated sewage openly dumped in broad daylight, without even a pretense of subterfuge.

Literally muckraking, Wang shows some pretty gross images at times, but they are undeniably effective (though the shot of a cast-off Chinese flag surfacing amid the rubbish is almost too perfect.) He lucidly explains the scope and implications of the waste issue, as well as the government corruption that allows it to continue unchecked. Wang also persuasively argues China’s nouveau riche will not be immune to the problem, pointing to the heavily polluted Wenyu River, for which a district of golf courses and horse stables was named.

Though he treats the hardscrabble scavengers picking through garbage landscapes with unfailing respect, Wang never romanticizes them as heroic recyclers, unlike Mai Iskander’s problematic Garbage Dreams. Unfortunately, he never offers any solutions either, dismissing the incineration option rather arbitrarily.

While it becomes somewhat repetitive after a while (if you’ve seen one teeming dump . . . ), Besieged certainly makes its point. It is enough to make an environmentalist out of anyone, at least with respects to China. The irony is hard to miss. China used to venerate the peasant class. That was a while ago and apparently the sentiment no longer applies to the land they work, if it ever did. More than a tad alarming, Besieged screens this Saturday afternoon (10/29), as the final selection of the Asia Society’s Visions of a New China.