By Jin Liu
Interview conducted in Chinese, translated by Jin Liu
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2020)
Wang Jiuliang’s 王久良 documentary Plastic China 塑料王国 (2016; 82 min.) follows the members of two families who spend their lives sorting and recycling plastic waste imported from the United States, Europe, and Asia. Yijie, an eleven-year-old girl, works alongside her migrant parents from Sichuan in a recycling plant in Shandong while yearning to return home and attend school. Kun, the facility’s boss, aspires to buy a new car and to secure a better life for his family. Through the story of these two families, this poignant film explores not only waste recycling, but also social and gender inequality, urbanization, consumerism, and globalization. It won the Special Jury Award at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the prize for Best Film on Sustainable Development at the 2017 Millennium International Documentary Film Festival in Belgium, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2017 Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan.
Born in 1976, Wang studied photography at the Communication University of China in Beijing, a preeminent institution for training journalists and media professionals. In 2007–2008, he completed a series of photographs about Chinese traditional folk religion. From 2008 to 2011, he investigated garbage disposal in and around Beijing and produced the documentary Beijing Besieged by Waste 垃圾围城 (2011) as well as a series of photographs with the same name. It took him six years to finish his second documentary, Plastic China (2011–2016), which earned him the Best Director Award at the 2017 “One World” International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague. He now works as an independent filmmaker based in Beijing.
The following interview took place in Atlanta during Wang’s visit to Georgia Tech to screen Plastic China as part of The Global Media Festival: Sustainability Across Languages and Cultures (March 27–April 1, 2017). The interview was conducted in Chinese and translated into English by Jin Liu.
Let’s start with some biographical questions. How did you come to filmmaking?
I was trained as a photographer, and have always been concerned about social reality in contemporary China. But when I tried to shoot reality, I found that photographic narrative has many limitations. When I started the project Beijing Besieged by Waste, at the very beginning I had mainly been taking photos. Soon, however, after two months of doing this, I was eager to embrace documentary filmmaking, something that integrates both the visual and the audio. Pictures were simply insufficient to tell the stories that I witnessed at those garbage dumpsites. Filming has more narrative power, and that’s how I finished my first documentary film. As for my second project, about imported plastic waste in China, the use of film became a natural choice for me. A film enables you to present a complicated issue more comprehensively, informatively, and sharply.
How does your biography influence your filmmaking?
As you know, I grew up in a rural village, so I have a special natural bond with earth and soil. Most of my work is related to space, or more specifically, to earth. In a sense, both of the films I’ve made so far are about geographic space. This has to do with my childhood experience, when I lived very close to nature.
Your work has been described as “socially engaging.” It concerns reality in contemporary China, and the final work, in turn, has an impact that can change that reality. As an environmental activist, how do you view the role of documentary?
I think it’s a mode of expression. To be honest, before embarking on these environmental projects, I made a series of photos on traditional Chinese folk religions, entitled Beliefs in Ghosts and Spirits 鬼神信仰 (figures 1 and 2). They are art for the sake of art. But gradually I found there was a big gap between these beautiful pictures and the grim social reality. These images may be relevant to me, as some reflect the ghost stories that my grandma told me when I was a kid, but probably not to anyone else in this society. I need to face society, not ignore it. The documentary genre became a way for me to engage society.
Documentary is a powerful medium. It can present what I want to express, because my aim is not only to reveal the problem but also to solve the problem through making a film.
Did you have any formative influences, mentors, or teachers who shaped your ideas of filmmaking?
I’d say Mr. Bao Kun 鲍昆 has exerted a great influence on me. Mr. Bao is a famous Chinese photography critic. He is my bole 伯乐 [a Chinese term for someone who can really appreciate your talents] and was the first to introduce my work to the public. When we were together, we talked more regarding current social issues than photography techniques. Such conversation is actually more helpful and valuable to me, since it helps me sort out problems and learn how to examine them in a critical way. He played a formative role in encouraging me to work on environmental topics. As I just said, my early work is far from reality. I still remember vividly what he told me at that time: “Open your eyes and take a look at the world around you.” He gave me a lot of advice when I shot my first film on the garbage crisis around Beijing—again, advice more on the overall framework and approach. He also helped to produce two of my individual photo exhibitions on this topic: one was the very influential Annual International Photographers Exhibit in Lianzhou, Guangdong, in December 2009, where I received the highest prize, “Best Photographer of the Year,” which greatly promoted my work (figure 3). The second exhibit was at Songzhuang Fine Art Gallery in June 2010, which showed all of my photographic work on that project (figure 4). That was the largest individual photo exhibition ever held in the gallery at that time.
Many of the images in your first film Beijing Besieged by Waste are impressive and thought-provoking. The pink girl standing there in Figure 4 above is one of them. I also like the following two images (figure 5 and figure 6) very much. Can you briefly talk about them?
I discovered a whole community of persons who were making a living on garbage, building their houses from discarded construction materials, and wearing clothes they had gleaned in the trash. Many of their children were born there. These kids, they thought the world was supposed to be like this, a world full of garbage, dirt, and waste. And this world is what we, the adults, produced and left behind for our children, our next generation. It’s incredibly sad. As for the baby in figure 5, this was the first time he’d ever been photographed. He was sitting in a basin, which is auspicious; remember the Chinese term, jubaopen 聚宝盆 [a basin for gathering treasure]? With respect to the goats grazing over the KFC leftovers, in a sense, the human being is no different from these animals, both being fed with and consuming the same food. At the same time, you get a sense of how pervasive and invasive the global fast-food culture is. It’s ubiquitous.
There has already been much media coverage of your first film. So let’s move on and talk more about your latest film, Plastic China. How did you decide to embark on this project?
During my first trip to the U.S., in April 2011, I visited a big waste recycling company in Oakland, California, to learn more about how garbage is recycled. Toward the end of the visit, a manager told me that after the initial sorting, the recyclables such as paper and plastic items would be shipped to China for the final treatment. I was astonished to hear this, and started to wonder: Why China? How would plastic waste be processed after it arrived in China? In the year after I returned to China (from May 2011 to May 2012), I started to do research on this project and visited many places. After the initial investigation, I learned that China is the world’s largest importer of plastic waste. In other words, China is not only the world’s factory, but also the world’s trash yard. What I witnessed and discovered was astonishing. I think more people should know the truth, and this is what is presented in this film.
I found your films have something in common, as both deal with the question, Where is it from and where does it go? So you always try to find answers or solutions to a problem, right?
Yes. My film is a response to my question. Everything is done by human beings. Our behavior is determined by our worldviews and values. Our value system is determined by the social structure we are in. So the story of the characters in the film can tell a lot about China and its society. It touches on many issues, such as environment, education, the gap between the rich and the poor.
How was your film financed?
When I made Beijing Besieged by Waste, I didn’t have much information regarding this aspect [of making a film], since I did it all by myself. I used my savings and got some financial help and support from Mr. Bao Kun as well as Mr. Li Xianting 栗宪庭 [a famous Chinese art critic, the so-called “Godfather of Contemporary Chinese Art”]. When I started to make my second film, it was very clear from the very beginning that it couldn’t be completed by just borrowing money. It needed a business model. I first used a domestic award I got, the Ford Environment Protection Award [100,000 RMB], to support the initial year of research. After I decided to work on this film, I sought funding [USD 100,000] from Beijing Taiyue [TYC Media], a company run by two of my college classmates. Later, with an unexpected delay in the filmmaking process, I approached CNEX, the short form of “Chinese Next” and “See Next,” and a non-profit foundation devoted to the production and promotion of Chinese documentaries. I presented my proposal to the company, and they finally became the producer of the film. They have two funding models: one with a limited amount of money; the other, the studio model, without an upper limit on funding. I got the latter, which was quite a relief financially. The total cost of this film is around USD 300,000.
Is documentary-making a lucrative business model in China these days? Does its profitability have anything to do with institutional controls like film censorship?
Documentary is not a profitable industry in China. This is particularly true for independent documentary films. I can hardly think of a successful case so far. The best scenario would be to strike a balance between cost and revenue. Many documentaries can’t break even, and this is the tough reality. But for my film, I heard from the producer that it should be no problem to recover the costs, although it has been banned in China. I’m very confident that it would make a lot of money if it were shown within China.
Before your film was banned, did you expect to show your film in public theatres? Otherwise, how would it make money?
To be honest, I didn’t count much on that traditional channel of showing the film in theatres nationwide. But it was still very possible to sell the film’s copyright to those domestic video websites such as iQiyi, Youku, Tencent, etc. But now control over the Internet has been significantly tightened and even showing a film on the Internet requires a Film Public Screening License from the SARFT according to the first national film law, which became effective earlier this year on March 1. Many independent films, including mine, suffered a lot from it. Also in January, the same month that my film was banned, my Yixi talk [the Chinese equivalent of the TED Talk] about my latest project on environmental woes remained online for only four days before it disappeared.
Yes, I remember that. Your talk was an instant Internet sensation, and the video link was widely circulated on WeChat and other social media. To continue on the topic of politics, although both of your films deal with similar environmental issues, why are their fates so different?
Regime change. It was still the Hu [Jintao]–Wen [Jiabao] regime when my first film came out. But now it’s the reign of Xi Jinping. The crackdown on freedom of expression is much tightened now. That being said, I still believe that my film plays a positive role in dealing with imported waste. My film was banned in January, but right afterward in February the Chinese government launched a big project called Blue Sky. In March the state reported that Customs had confiscated foreign waste with a value of USD 10 million. Although they didn’t mention a word about me or my film, I know for sure that this was a response to my film.
What is the most challenging moment during the production process?
This has to be during the onsite shooting, such as how to enter those waste treatment/processing factories. Although there are 5,000 such factories in that small town, not one would like you to film them. I don’t want to go into details, but we were beaten three times because our presence threatened their interests. So it took us a long time to try to get in. For at least the first three months we had to shoot from outside and afar. Not only the factories but also the local government didn’t welcome you, as someone with a camera. This is the most difficult part. It was not Yijie who was our protagonist in the beginning, but rather an old man who is the owner of a factory. I filmed him and his family for one year beginning in spring 2012, but in spring 2013 the local government found out and warned him to stop cooperating with me. We were no longer allowed to enter his factory, and the filming had to come to a halt. It became an unfinished story, and I had to discard all the materials I had filmed, not to mention the time and effort we had devoted to it. It was very painful! We had to start from scratch and to look for a new story. From then on, Yijie became our protagonist, and it took us one and a half years to film her and her family, from spring 2013 to fall 2014.
How did you find the girl and her family? How did her family find the 5,000 factories there?
First, for most families living in that town, their stories are pretty much the same as the Pengs’ and Kun’s, so it doesn’t matter which family we chose. The factory owner Kun is local to Shandong. But since most local people are not willing to do this kind of job, most workers the factories hire are from Sichuan Province, like the Peng family. That being said, in the beginning it was very hard to approach Yijie and her family. When we first got there, they thought we were human traffickers or drug dealers. It was quite difficult to get close to the adults, but relatively easy to approach kids. We had a female (the only girl) on our team and it was she who discovered Yijie in the street. She learned that Yijie was nine years old but had never been able to go to school. I thought since we were making films, probably we could help her to go to school, but I didn’t expect that she would in the end become our protagonist. When you spend time together and when you prove that you’re not doing any harm to them, they will trust you and accept you. The girl finally took us to her family and the factory.
Once you were able to enter the factory, how did you negotiate participation with those people who appeared in front of the camera? Did any ethical concerns emerge during the filming process?
For the girl, we told her parents that we wanted to know about their life and were concerned whether she could go back home to go to school. I told the boss of the factory, Kun, that I’m not a journalist, but a filmmaker and a garbage researcher; we wanted to learn how the industry works and operates, and how the plastic trash is recycled. I showed him my ID card so that he could write down my name and home address. All I did was to prove that I’m not here to cause trouble for him. This is very important. When shooting started, I told Kun very frankly, “If you find anything inappropriate, please let us know. You can ask us to stop shooting at any time. You’re also free not to answer certain questions.” Kun did tell us, “Don’t ask me any questions about pollution. I won’t talk about it.” He knew clearly that we were making a film out of this. He even watched the film Last Train Home to get an idea of the final product. Later he told me, “It’s a very touching film, but our story will be better.”
How did you approach the camera work? Where did you put your camera? It seems like you often shoot from the ground or slightly below your subject.
The use of low-angle shots is related to your attitude toward your human subject, and it’s an ethical issue. At least your camera should show respect to the people you’re shooting. It is an equal relationship between the subject and the cameraman. Mutual respect is the key. Also, my film is about the close relationship between people and trash. From the film, you can see the kids play in the trash piles (figure 7), they use trash to cook, to keep warm (figure 8), etc.
I’m struck by how deftly your filmmaking handles the issue of intimacy. How did you bring your camera so close to the people you’re shooting? Your camera not only presented the public space where they work, but also entered their private space, such as Kun’s room at night.
The distance between your camera and your subject represents your relationship with your subject. You can see I’m very close to them. But this intimacy actually needs a lot of time to build. It is a complicated and difficult process. The closeness between the camera and the subject can also engender an intimacy between the audience and the film. This way the audience can see the characters nakedly, and be able to better interact and communicate with them. In the beginning, we didn’t shoot everything that we thought would be valuable. We needed some time to warm up. By the way, it is also a process to get your subject to be familiar with the camera. Nobody feels comfortable in front of the camera in the beginning. But developing a personal relationship with your subject is more important. After beginning as strangers we became close friends, and even sworn brothers in the end. I hung out with them every day, eating together and sometimes helping them with the work. I lent my car and even money to Kun. You know that in China, only very close friends dare to do this. In one scene, Kun said to his wife, “We haven’t paid Wang Jiuliang’s debt yet,” though I didn’t add subtitles for it. My wife and my daughter also joined me in the plant and the kids played together. So it’s a process of heart-to-heart exchange.
There is an interesting scene in the film. Kun tells Peng’s children, “If you memorize everything in this dictionary, you’ll be better than Wang Jiuliang (the camera guy).” Although you’re invisible in the film, you were far from absent. The intensive labor the Peng family and Kun’s family perform parallels your filmmaking. You literally dropped in on this factory, and you were even there when one of Peng’s children was born. The girl was born in the trash under the dirt. Most people wouldn’t let you film that. This is a real testament to the work that went into the filmmaking.
Thank you. Well, for the birth scene, I urged them to inform me when the time was coming. As you know, I lived in a rented place very near them. Peng’s kids like me. When Azi, the eldest son, asked me, “Do you believe [that his dad said they will go home tomorrow]?” he turned his head from the camera and directly communicated with me (figure 9 and figure 10). The communication was very natural. For the kids, they don’t know exactly the result of being videoed. The camera is not an obstacle, and they often ignore its existence.
It seems like the camera became part of your body or an extension of your body.
In a sense, yes.
Did you pay or compensate families for participating in the film?
I’d like to formulate this in another way. After all the shooting was done, as a token of appreciation, the film’s production companies and myself spent our own money to help the Peng family to go home to Sichuan and send Yijie to school. Now she is a third-grader in their local elementary school.
You shot more than 200 hours of material for the film. Can you describe how you edited this into 82 minutes?
When making a documentary, you may have an outline in advance but the story doesn’t exist in the beginning. It’s different from making a feature film, which usually has a script beforehand. You can only look for a story gradually as your shooting develops. So the process of shooting is also the process of searching for a story. While shooting, we slowly learned both families have their own goals and dreams: Kun wants to buy a car while Yijie wants to go back home. So this became the rough storyline, and we’ll see how they try to achieve their goals, and whether or not they succeed in the end (Kun did, but Yijie didn’t). After the shooting is done, editing is the real start of filmmaking. I took six months to work on the editing draft and made ten versions in total, each about 90 minutes. Then I worked back and forth with Jean Tsien, the editing supervisor, and Bob Lee, the editor, to finalize the cut [Tsien and Lee later won the Best Film Editing Award at the 2017 Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei]. The entire editing took us two years.
Were there any stories or scenes that you decided not to include due to ethical concerns?
What was discarded is certainly much more than what was kept. This happens during the editing of every film. Here are several examples. Kun and Peng had at least three fights. And one time Peng’s head was bleeding, and I dropped my camera and took him to the hospital. Second, Yiduo (the second-eldest brother) put a syringe in his mouth, which was included in the 26-minute media version available online but not in the 82-minute film version. I shot it accidentally, and I told him never to put it in his mouth again. Third, the kids’ fishing also touches on an ethical issue. But it was Peng, the children’s legal guardian, who took them fishing (figure 11), and later Kun’s mom, also an adult, cleaned the fish (figure 12). As a matter of fact, Kun’s family ate more. I also ate some. But anyway, as a principle, we don’t shoot if this may affect our subject’s life.
The girl’s school education is a big theme in this film. But just now you talked more about her wish to go back home, and it seems like these two things are interchangeable, two sides of the same issue. For a child at that age, what is meant by education? How can she have such a strong desire for education? Do you think she has a clear idea of the importance of education?
Well, it’s the same thing for the girl. For a kid around nine or eleven years old, when all the other kids her age are in school but she is not, she is alone and feels like “I’m different from others.” She found out she is discriminated against or has been deprived of some of her rights. In Shandong, she couldn’t get any respect and was often despised. The boys, such as Azi, are not as sensitive as their elder sister. But Yijie even asked me one day, “Do you know where the train station is? My mom and I will buy the train ticket. Even if he [her father] doesn’t go back, we’ll go back” [the last sentence appears in the film’s trailer, but not in the film itself].
Speaking of the soundtrack, music plays a very empathetic role in this documentary on a weighty topic. Especially in the scene (figures 13 and 14) when Peng, Yijie, and Azi couldn’t afford to buy tickets for the train or the long-distance bus to go home, and when they were sitting outside the bus station, the song is so emotional and touching, voicing their strong disappointment and homesickness.
We auditioned four musicians to score the film, and finally used the composer and songwriter Mr. Tyler Strickland, based in Los Angeles, for the post-production. But for that particular song, it’s from my original editing draft. It’s a Yi ethnic minority song in their language, and they often play it in the factory. Yijie’s father is good at singing, as you see from the film. You know, in the Yi minority, only men sing.
Right, Peng’s wife never sings. She actually seldom utters a word and is always silent. Even when she was giving birth, she was seen biting her hair and we didn’t hear a groan of pain (figures 15 and 16). You know, from an eco-feminist point of view, women are connected with nature and both are silently victimized by sociocultural oppression and ecological degradation.
Some audience members brought up this gender issue after the screening at MoMA in NYC. Yijie’s mom is very hardworking, and she actually earned more than her husband. She is very deft in crafts, and makes infant carrier belts herself, with beautiful and complex patterns. But with a strong patriarchal system in China, and particularly in the ethnic minority regions, women’s status and education is still a big problem.
Speaking about reception, how have different audiences reacted to the film?
Audiences abroad and at home are angry. For the foreign audience, they’re angry and want to know why their trash ended up going to China. They also feel guilty over the alternative lifestyle of these two families and start to reflect upon their own consumption styles. For the Chinese audience [after watching the 26-minute media version], they were angry about the terrible impact of foreign waste on the environment and people in China.
Finally, can you talk about your current project?
I’m now working on two projects. One is a documentary film about ocean pollution, and the second is a feature film on women’s rights.