Plastic China (China, 2016) [CAAMFest 2017]


Photographer-filmmaker Wang Jiuliang has, since 2008, been documenting the opposite end of economic development and consumption in his home country: waste, where it goes, who deals with it, and its multi-pronged impact on the population and environment. The first videographic result of this initially photographic project was his debut documentary, Beijing Besieged By Waste (2011). In this film, Wang presents his photographs and footage of the major landfills in the Beijing suburbs and numerous illegal dumpsites on its outskirts, all of which house the waste produced by the city and its denizens. Though the film is largely instructional and illustrative, through his voiceover that accompanies the footage and photographs, Wang speaks to the viewer from a personal place about how his project began – with his own neighbourhood – and ultimately his anger due to what is happening. For over time, his project grew into mapping (with the help of Google Earth) and charting the rapid, irrevocable changes in landscape – and by extension in air, water, and food quality – as a result of unchecked, mismanaged dumping. Only occasionally is there interaction between social actors and the camera/Wang, especially those who make their living off of sorting through garbage for recycling purposes and even live in the landfills themselves.

For his second documentary, as the title implies, Wang focuses specifically on waste plastics. Waste plastics from Europe, North America, Japan, and South Korea are continually dumped into China. According to the Basel Convention, an international treaty created to control the ‘transboundary movements of hazardous materials’ adopted in 1989, household waste in particular is prohibited from being imported and exported. Yet a majority of the waste that arrives in China is precisely that, in breach of treaty guidelines; at the same time, the country is in fact the leading importer of waste plastics, so the breaching goes both ways. The film begins with such movements: at Tsingdao harbour, where freighters abound, including those that carry waste plastics; then on the road inside China following trucks that transport waste plastics from freighters to factories; and finally at one of the many plastics processing/recycling factories in the province of Shandong.

This time, too, Wang mainly forgoes the instructional and illustrative (and voiceover) and instead favours the interactive, between social actors and the camera/himself. On the one hand, the film details the long-term, wide-ranging impact of rampant waste plastic production, resulting in deeply polluted lakes, rivers (or their virtual disappearance), and air; plastic-filled livestock; and broken bodies. On the other hand, Wang embeds his camera in one such factory, to capture not only the frank imagery of the magnitude of plasticscapes but more importantly the people who live in and off of them. There is Kun, the factory owner, who lives with his wife, their son, and his mother in a home located by or inside factory grounds. The film does not resort to sit-down interviews, but Wang from off-screen is clearly asking questions to capture their lives, past and present, and aspirational desires. In one such conversation, Kun relates how he does not possess a skill set for any position or job other than ‘dirty works,’ yet he takes the risk of plastics processing for the sake of his family and the future of his son QiQi. ‘Damn plastics! My body is broken,’ he blurts out at one point at home.


Yet Kun is not alone in his work. His factory is but one of the five thousand plastic recycling shops in Shandong, even though profits are meagre due to electricity bills and taxes and health risks are all too real, which Wang also steadfastly documents. At Kun’s factory, which presumably represents every other entity like it, non-mechanised sorting prevails: maskless, gloveless men, women, and children (and sometimes even shirtless for the men) plunge knee deep in plasticscapes to initiate processing. Even if some of the processes are mechanised, they remain exposed to the fumes emanating from the machines, which do not have any protective covering, as they operate. Additionally, work and play are blurred for the children, as they frolic in hills of waste plastics that constitute their living quarters and workspace. (Notably, the film really begins with kids playing in a small cave of waste plastics.)

Wang structures his film in part by presenting two family portraits of opposing impulses in the face of their circumstances at the factory: that of Kun and that of an employee from Sichuan, Peng, who lives in a cement block abode right inside the factory with his wife and children. While Kun and his wife are very adamant about QiQi going to school, Peng will not allow Yi Jie the eldest to go to school because she has to help take care of her brother and sisters; Kun’s is a one-child family, while Peng’s is ever-growing (Wang even captures Peng’s wife’s natural birth in a corner of the factory to make it a five-children family); while Kun passes his free time indulging in consumerist dreams to turn into realities, Peng indulges in alcohol to lose himself in a dreamy haze. Significantly, Wang captures Kun and Peng literally coming to blows over their (wage) differences. In the process, the film subtly invites a reading of Kun and Peng as incarnations of Janus-faced economic development and consumption.

What Wang brings to light that makes the film more dynamic than his first documentary are the alienating contradictions and hierarchy in consumption/consumerist desire. In one sequence, Yi Jie and her siblings craft a ‘computer’ with plastic materials and paper. This sequence’s counterpart is that of Kun’s family computer and the Internet, through which they identify and verify the high-class goods that they sometimes find in the plasticscapes. Yes, in their home, Kun and his family have a computer and wifi, and also a television set that gives them access to English-language programs and dubbed episodes of Dora the Explorer. Yet in the factory they do not have masks, gloves, or uniforms to protect their bodies as they do the work that enables them to attain such things. These families’ lives thus present a photographic negative of living in a capitalist world; for these lives, too, have a cosmopolitan aspect, and they are also consumers as well as producers – but in the ironic sense that they have access to imported, high-quality goods only after they have been used/discarded and that their consumption and production takes place at the bottom of the totem pole.

Plastic China is showing on March 11 at CAAMFest 2017.