We don’t need to tell you that China, and the world beyond, have been talking about ‘Under the Dome’ (117 million views in the first 24 hours!), the hard-hitting, investigative documentary by Chai Jing that rocked China last month, and was called China’s ‘Silent Spring’. (It has since disappeared from Chinese media and websites, but that is another story)
We would, however, like to point you in the direction of another film with a similar subject matter – one that has been quietly winning hearts and opening eyes. Made by international award-winning Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke in collaboration with Greenpeace East Asia, ‘Smog Journeys’ is a short film that gives China’s air pollution problem a human face.
After the critically acclaimed ‘A Touch of Sin’, which examined the human toll of China’s economic expansion and was banned by Chinese censors (it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the Best Screenplay award at the 2013 Cannes festival), In ‘Smog Journeys’, Jia Zhangke takes another searing look at the other major side effect of China’s growth : its horrific air pollution. While most commentaries on the smog in China are crowded with scary statistical graphs, pictures of haze-enveloped cities, chimneys and vehicles spewing forth billowing clowds of death, gloomy people in masks and a general feeling of doom, Jia’s recent effort in collaboration with Greenpeace aims to give the air pollution problem a more moving, realistic human face.
Known as a ‘socially conscious’ filmmaker and for his gritty portrayals of contemporary Chinese society, Jia was inspired to take this subject up when as an adult, he came to the rude realization that the blue skies and clouds they had taken for granted as children were no more, and hadn’t been that way for years; he just hadn’t stopped to register that. ‘Smog Journeys’ is a moving story of what happens when children see more days of smog-enveloped environs than clear blue skies.
Shot in Beijing and Hebei, the industrial, coal rich province that surrounds the Chinese capital, ‘Smog Journeys’ follows two different families in polluted Chinese cities – one a mining family in Hebei and the other a fashion designer in the capital.. “No one gets to be different when it comes to smog” he said. Pollution, he says, is the great equalizer : irrespective of wealth and social class, everyone breathes the same air.
Jia is from the coal-rich province Shanxi province and lives in Beijing, now two of the most polluted parts of China. His own father died of lung cancer in Shanxi. Jia points to the need for immediate action, concerned about the toll on both the quality of life and on public health. He refers to studies that have highlighted the horrific effects of the country’s pollution, like one that found coal pollution in northern China lowered life expectancy by five years, another that estimated that 670,000 people died from smog-related causes in 2012 alone, and yet another which suggested that air pollution negatively impacted the brain development of children born near a coal-burning power plant. According to new data from Greenpeace, the average levels of particulate matter were nearly double the country’s health standards in more than 90% of 190 Chinese cities tracked last year. Researchers from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and China’s Academy for Environmental Planning estimated that up to 500,000 Chinese residents die prematurely every year because of air pollution. Replete with gloomy images, statistics and predictions, these stories on pollution and its effects rarely provide a real glimpse into how these conditions impact individual people. ‘Smog Journeys’ seeks to do just that.
“I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them,” said Jia. “The issue of smog is something that all the citizens of the country need to face, understand, and solve in the upcoming few years.” Beyond the research and the data and the scary numbers, Jia hopes to show the “poetry of sadness, or anxiety” of the lives of the people who are most affected by polluted air. “I sensed something poetic in this — that the power of life remains in people even in horrible environments”
A screenwriter and leading figure of the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese directors, Jia Zhangke of Shanxi is a latecomer to the ‘Sixth Generation’, yet his oeuvre has brought him to the forefront of this urban, mostly independent movement of explosively creative cinema verité.
Among Jia’s other widely-applauded films are Xiao Wu, The World, and Still Life. With work that often portrays realities quite different from the bromidic notions of the “Chinese Dream” or the “Harmonious Society”, Jia ’s cinema has not found many fans among Chinese authorities. Indiewire sums his work up succinctly as portraying the “dislocation, alienation, and social and economic inequality in the ‘new’ China.”
‘Smog Journeys’ didn’t go viral, yet it is equally heartfelt, touching and timely. Here’s hoping that this short film goes a long way in telling the world a story that needs to be told, of the almost poetic sadness of China’s air pollution.
“Clean air doesn’t come to those who wait”, says Jia Zhangke earnestly.
Watch and share Smog Journeys (VPN required)
About Greenpeace’s mission in China : In the short-term, Greenpeace calls for stronger enforcement of national and local action plans including shutting down the dirtiest industries, reducing local coal use, encouraging solar and wind power uptake, as well as better policy to protect vulnerable populations during heavy pollution days. http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/get-involved/
An excerpt from Jia Zhangke’s interview with Greenpeace:
Greenpeace: What inspired you to make this film?
Jia: I myself have lived my life mostly in two areas, one of which is Shanxi Province. Shanxi is an energy [industry intensive] area. I started noticing the smog issue in the 1990s, but back then there was no such a word as “smog.” I just felt that the air became really terrible. Dust was flying all over the place, making people’s everyday lives extremely inconvenient. Then I came to live in Beijing. Smog has became an important issue in people’s lives here, especially in the winter.
The characters are meant to show how no one gets to be different when it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face. I wanted to raise the society’s environmental awareness through this, get people to pay attention to the issue of smog, and find ways to solve it.
GP : The film has several scenes that made me take pause. For example, the one where a boy is doing back flips or where a couple is kissing in front of of chimneys. What’s behind those scenes?
JZ : “One thing that fascinated and shocked me the most was the fact that even on smoggy days, people still lived their lives as usual.’” For example, when the Air Quality Index hit 200 or 300, and the air turned opaque or gray, I still saw people dancing, young people still hanging out. Everyone was doing what they would normally be doing.
On the other hand, it was also a pretty sentimental situation. In such bad air pollution where people should be wearing masks outdoors, there was still a woman eating youtiao [Chinese deep-fried dough strips] outside, another old lady dancing around, and a little kid playing football, rolling here and there. You realize that no matter what the circumstances or plight, the charm and fascination of life itself still exists. I was quite touched by that.
GP : The theme of the film is “the people under the smog.” How did you tell stories following this theme?
JZ : The two families bring out a collective image. In the film, there is this little boy. He obviously has some respiratory issues caused by the air pollution. This leads to the unveiling of the same situation happening to a lot of the children in his school. We saw lots of similar reports in our research. For example, in the surrounding area of Shijiazhuang, I was shocked by the photos in many of the village clinics. They were all little kids and they all had to receive treatment for respiratory infection when winter came. Meanwhile, in Beijing, kids wore masks to go to school and so did the parents when they went to pick up their kids after school.
GP : There a sense of fantasy or illusory beauty in the film.
JZ : When nature becomes like this, it is surreal. When we were kids, blue skies and white clouds were something we took for granted in our lives. When I was studying in Beijing, every afternoon I’d look toward the west from the sports ground of Beijing Film Academy and see the West Mountain and the fiery clouds across the sky above it. Later on, I became busier with work that I stopped paying attention to nature. As time went by, eventually, I noticed how the sky had often been opaque like this.
Sometimes we joke about how it is easy to fix everything except for the air when you want to shoot a film set in the 90s or the 1980s. We can make the actors wear costumes from the 1980s, and sing songs from the 1980s, but what do we do without the air from the 1980s?
GP : What was your biggest challenge while shooting?
JZ : Actually, the scouting part consumed a lot of our time. When visting the surrounding areas of Beijing, we went to Tianjin first, and then turned back to go to Baoding, Shijiazhuang and on to the Xingtai and Handan side. During the scouting trips, I felt what I was looking for was not only the smoggy environments, but also the poetry hiding behind the lives of people there, perhaps poetry of sadness, or anxiety.
At the same time, we needed to find the kind of spatial structure, for example one that links the power plants and the fields, and power plants and the mountains, with human beings, bringing out more aesthetic perception. I don’t want to make this film to threaten people or make them feel scared after they watch it. I hope I can move the audience emotionally, inspire a kind of consciousness and together push society as a whole to change this.