The Fringes of Beijing B02
In October 2008, photographer Wang Jiuliang began a project investigating waste disposal in and around Beijing. Following the trucks that collected his daily rubbish, he discovered eleven large-scale refuse landfills scattered around the close suburbs of the city, each one growing daily alongside the skyscrapers, housing developments, and general urban boom that surrounded them.
Beyond this, Wang also uncovered an underground industry in which rubbish was being removed from the inner city and taken to hundreds of illegal dumpsites around the urban fringe. Here, people were making their homes and their living, building houses from discarded construction materials, wearing clothes they had gleaned in the trash, and making their dinners from the city’s food scraps. They raised pigs on leftover organic matter. Local shepherds brought sheep and cattle to graze between the bottles and plastic bags.
The speed and scale of China’s development always makes for a particularly shocking story, here easily interpreted as 'the dark side' of China's economic miracle, which in many ways it is. However the problem of junk is one shared by all consumer societies. To quote Wang, ‘Many of us believe that we are completely disconnected from the garbage we produce once it has left our sight. Few realize that their garbage has not gone far ... ’
Shocked by what he had found, Wang developed his project into a powerful documentary film called Besieged by Waste [垃圾围城], released in 2011 and now available for distribution through dGenerate Films. Shot with both a photographer’s eye for aesthetics, and an activist’s commitment to social change, the film is a striking reminder of the inextricability of society and its trash.
Gaoantun Landfill in Chaoyang District, Beijing
CC: Could you tell me what sparked your interest in making this film? Did you have a sense of where your rubbish ended up?
WJL: To be honest, before filming Besieged by Waste I had no idea where my rubbish went. I’d lived in Beijing for five years and had never asked myself that question. It was only after I took on this project that I started to ask myself: Where does my rubbish go? And the answers to that question were revealed in the process of filming.
At the beginning I just wanted to take a few pictures of some Beijing rubbish dumps for a project I was working on at that time (a project called Supermarket that is still ongoing now). These pictures were just supposed to provide some background for that project, to look into the current situation of waste disposal in Beijing, but then we found ourselves exposed to something far beyond anything we could have imagined. For one thing we didn’t expect there to be so many rubbish dumps so close to Beijing. We also didn’t realise how significantly this waste affected people’s lives.
But then we found ourselves confronted with all this information, and that’s how I ended up spending three years on this project.
Tuqiao in Liyuan Township, Tongzhou District, Beijing
CC: One line that kept coming up in the film was that ‘no one could answer my questions.’ It felt like you were asking questions that nobody else had asked yet – that nobody even knew how to ask yet, let alone answer.
WJL: This question of where my rubbish went confused me, but I think my confusion was actually representative of that of many people. There are so many questions that people don’t know how to answer, don’t know how to ask – I think my bewilderment probably represents the bewilderment of many others.
CC: I saw at the end of the film that it had some influence on national policy. Could you tell me a bit more about that, and the reaction in general to the film?
WJL: After the film came out it attracted a lot of media attention, from all different places, but especially China’s biggest media agency, Xinhua Media. They have this one particular thing called Interior Reference [neican], which is a collection of writing or information that is put together particularly for the highest-level officials – and they included information about my film in one of those Interior Reference reports.
At the time, the journalists from Xinhua Media told me that Premier Wen Jiabao had spent a lot of time going over my film, reviewing the information in it, and then he issued orders for local officers to attend to the problem. These processes are top down so they’re very fast and, only two or three months after the Interior Reference report had been submitted to the top party leaders, they had already issued policies. These policies were to deal with this problem of rubbish disposal – the illegal sites and the mismanagement of the legal ones. They dedicated 100 billion yuan for the next five to seven years to the issue.
CC: Wow. That’s a fantastic result.
WJL: It was, and it was very comforting to me; it made me feel like my work hadn’t been for nothing. By 2011, 80% of the dumps had been closed or being dealt with. That’s a pretty big difference.
CC: Have you seen the American documentary film Gaslands by Josh Fox, about coal gas seam mining, or ‘fracking’ in the United States? It’s similar in the way it’s just one man and his camera exposing an environmental problem of national scale.
WJL: I think I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.
CC: Your film and Gaslands are both evidence of how it’s possible to make films like this today, cheaply and with digital technology, and with distribution through the Internet you can reach a global audience. There are a lot of people in China making these kinds of guerrilla documentaries now, no?
WJL: I wouldn’t say there are a lot of us. [laughs] Censorship and control of the media is still pretty strict in China, so independent directors here are not as free as people might imagine. Especially people willing to deal with sensitive subjects – there are very few documentary makers like this. There aren’t many documentaries made about environmental issues in China.
CC: So would you say you’re an optimist?
WJL: Of course I’m an optimist! If I were a pessimist I wouldn’t have done what I did. It’s only because we have hope that we are still striving.
Loutai Village in Songzhuang Township, Tongzhou District, Beijing
This site is close to the Beijing Capital International Airport. On the bank of the pond there is garbage from airline companies. On the water surface, there are many disposable slippers from airplanes.
CC: It’s interesting, your film is very political, but it’s also highly cinematic. The beauty in that first scene of sunrise over the dump, for example – you manage to find poetry in the filthiest of places, the most abject of social problems.
WJL: I suppose that first and foremost I’m a photographer. I’ve been working as a photographer for more than a decade, so perhaps it’s almost a habit for me by now to try to make something look beautiful. [laughs] And maybe especially because this is a difficult topic – it’s hard to face or accept – so I try to present it in a way that makes it easier to handle.
I want my audience to open their eyes. I want them to really see this problem. And I want them to see the rubbish dumps against a bigger backdrop – against the skyscrapers, against the fields and the rivers – so that they can see also the connection these places have to the broader environment and to our lives in general.
On the surface the film is about rubbish; that’s the ‘topic’. But what I really want to investigate here is the problem of urbanisation, because the problems of rubbish, the expansion of the city, increasing population and consumerism are all connected. So in the end the film is a reflection on this crazy expansion of the city, this mad pace of urbanisation.
The Fringes of Beijing B07
CC: Has making the film affected the way that you live? The choices you make about what to eat, what to buy, etc.?
WJL: Making the film has made me think a lot about materiality – I’ve completely reassessed my relationship with the material world. In the past, a thing was just a thing to me, was just something to be used. I was completely ignorant of the whole life cycle of an object. An object had nothing to do with me.
After going so deeply into this project I’ve realised that recycling is something very close to us – it’s part of our life, it surrounds us – and that sooner or later our rubbish will come back and affect us.
So now when I go to a supermarket, or just generally in my daily life, I’ll always be asking myself the question Where does this thing come from? Why does it exist? Why do we abandon it? Where do we abandon it? And what kinds of problems might that disposal cause?
When I see an object now I want to know it more completely and more rationally.
The Fringes of Beijing B09
CC: So to end, can you tell me a little more about the project you mentioned at the beginning, the one called Supermarket 《超级市场》 which kick-started the documentary and that you said you’re still working on?
WJL: It’s also about rubbish and in some ways will be a sequel now to Besieged by Waste. It’s going to be more of an art project though, with pictures, an installation, exhibition and a documentary. What I’m going to do is collect a whole lot of rubbish and replicate a supermarket out of this trash. I’m going to create a supermarket of waste.
CC: That’s an interesting play with the idea of value. At first glance the supermarket will look totally familiar, until people realise that it’s full of familiar junk. And the junk has come back to haunt them!
WJL: That’s right. I think the supermarket is a very representative symbol of consumerism. On the one side you have the consumers, and I think people feel very familiar with the concept of the supermarket, but then what I want to do with the supermarket will be kind of ironic. I want to use this to look further into the question of where commercial products come from and the full life cycle of an object. Through looking at the problem of rubbish critically, I want to investigate the problems inherent in consumerism and capitalist production.
Changxindian Township, Fengtai District, Beijing