Crouching Tiger Leaping
In the West, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes and Jia Zhang-ke’s homegrown films are among the few to zero in on China’s alarming ecological and social crises. Damage concomitant with the Industrial Revolution was not generally realized until later, and history repeats itself as first the Soviet Bloc East and now China’s catch-up great leap forward come at equally unacceptable cost to the planet and its inhabitants. Internally, Beijing’s censorship has squelched dissent about, even consideration of, consequences.
Asia Society/Center on U.S.-China Relations’s “Waking the Green Tiger; Documentaries from the Front Lines of China’s Environmental Crisis” highlights advocacy filmmaking within that country and its “megacities’ smoggy skylines, soils contaminated by cadmium and arsenic, diminishing groundwater unfit for drinking.” The two subtitled features, a third still in progress and two long shorts were presented admission free and accompanied by a lecture, Q&As with directors, producers, cinematographers or activists, and receptions. Along the way, it becomes obvious that prospects are not encouraging despite some recent legal protections that are long-term ineffectual and leave that nation’s EPA in limbo. All is not hopeless, however, for concerned NGOs have proliferated since 1994 and, thanks to faint cracks in media suppression, grassroots education and protests are making some inroads.
Director Wang Jiuliang remarked that stumbling blocks to recycling arise not so much from factory owners as from the government and that “trash or garbage” is only the tip of the iceberg. Clips from his forthcoming Plastic China capture a mere part of the problem, where cheap labor and lax laws and enforcement attract seventy per cent of global waste for treatment, a vicious circle wherein the residue packaging from Chinese products sold abroad is ultimately shipped back there, some of it winding up in the five hundred landfills uncovered in his earlier Beijing Besieged by Waste.
Director, writer and coproducer Gary Marcuse’s 2011 Chinese-Canadian Waking the Green Tiger centers on activists like Q&A participant Shi Lihong, who helped halt for the time being a hubristic hydroelectric project at celebrated Tiger Leaping Gorge. Yúnán Province’s Yu, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers have borne a lion’s share of dams constructed to power industry and in the process flood vast areas and displace hundreds of thousands of villagers.
As is not uncommon in documentaries, especially those with non-Occidental names, interviewees are difficult to keep straight, and some issues could have been set forth more clearly. But activists’ inroads in galvanizing illiterate, isolated villagers are impressive, particularly as communications and social media are almost entirely absent. Highlights include previously unreleased archival footage of Mao’s ill-conceived Great Leap Forward, or 1958 Second Five-Year Plan, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution “War Against Nature” in the name of Progress. Economic, social and environmental catastrophes from which the country has not fully recovered, such dictated programs and supportive propaganda led to the corruption and hardship only recently tempered by democratic processes in which ordinary citizens have some say in formerly top-down policies that affect them. (As of this very moment, however, reports circulate of retrogression and crackdown in Hong Kong.)
Not many features match the program’s back-to-back shorts for drama, pathos, information, humor in places, presentation, and subtle defense of cultures and nature. Its single string-instrument score worth a whole orchestra’s, in the thirty minutes of 2009 A Farmer’s Struggle director Zhao Liang rivals the photojournalism of Dorothea Lange. Natural and manmade climate change has dried up fishing lakes and fertile farmland in Minqin, a hamlet reduced to one couple, their twenty sheep and six chickens and ghosts of three hundred neighbors lured away to Xinjiang by government subsidies and housing.
Former teacher Wei Gungcai refuses to leave, trucking in drinkable water every two weeks, irrigating once a year, growing fennel and maintaining as best he can the schoolhouse with cement blackboard he helped build, Surrounding deserts’ dust- and sand-storms wash the color-bleached town and landscape.
Zhang Juhua, his wife of thirty-five years, wants to move, too, and have friends and female neighbors again but worries about leaving alone this man their grown married daughter characterizes as stubborn and who is out yet a second teaching post when Dongrong Primary also folds.
Conceding himself “confused” about the future, the farmer is admirable in his doomed, ultimately useless struggle. His vast inland solitude up near Inner Mongolia contrasts with the family backing, warmth and small but real joys of “not very sexy topic” Yak Dung. The fifty minutes was shot in 2010 by thirty-year-old, now married-with-child ex-monk Lanzhe, who had never before touched a camera but has the sense not to intrude at all, allowing instinctive non-artsy photography and characters to do the talking (in Tibetan subtitled into Chinese and English).
Recalling aspects of The Cave of the Yellow Dog, the camera captures the work -- almost entirely of womenfolk -- of shaping the title excrement into every conceivable form and use: from doors to handles and walls, varied bricks to doghouses, saddles to ice sleds to medicines to toys, stove linings to fuel and detergent. The shaggy beasts of burden are themselves sources of wealth, dairy, meat, fur, hides and hair. “Without their dung,” rightly remarks mother to child, “we Tibetans could not live on this plateau.”
Instead of bald explanation, lecture or preachiness, the documentary shows the gathering, transporting, hand-shaping and ice-trowel smoothing, drying, mixing, processing and storing of this “not-dirty” essential. Not broached but surely implied is that this demanding centuries-old way of life is disappearing.
“We’re lost. Our culture, our guns are gone!” seconds Weijia, the individual followed over seven years in director-coproducer Gu Tao’s 2013 The Last Moose of Aoluguya. “Go ahead, shoot me,” he adds in a rare expletive-free moment of sobriety.
The “Reindeer” Ewenki people, three tribes totaling thirty thousand in the third-smallest of China’s fifty-five ethnic minorities, are losing their language (subtitled into Chinese and English), traditions and identity after being forced out of their eastern Inner Mongolia moose-hunting and reindeer-herding mountain forestlands. Relocated to a township, this Aoluguya tribe of sixty-some-odd families, less than two hundred members, may be sent away again as more Han Chinese arrive.
Drinking was not uncommon before in the cold teepees up in Hunters’ Camp but now is endemic, eight of fourteen herders having already drunk themselves to death and Weijia a near-pariah for his continual and aggressive stupor. Sometimes acidly humorous, he can be riveting while acting out perhaps embellished events, pathetic when beaten by sober companions, sad when kissing his father or pouring ritual alcohol libations on grandmother’s tomb mound.
Unkempt, he undergoes an abrupt transformation when, despairing of his marrying locally, his mother advertises and finds him a mate in teacher Xia. In the jarring beach-resort city where the couple then lives, he is a fish out of water in hats, shades and Hawaii shirts and shorts. Committed to a mental institution to dry out, he abandons conjugal domesticity and returns to mother and pathetic rotund sister, though their future, and the group’s, looks anything but promising.
Important in content, uneven but engaging and often beautiful in imagery and heart, the works in this offering are helped greatly by being free of current documentary blights of non-dramatic graphics and animation, pontifical narration, and heads that talk. Sufficient facts are incorporated into images, which is after all what motion pictures are. Gaining the trust of their subjects, the filmmakers allow them to comment wisely, sparingly or garrulously, or not at all.