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Beijing Besieged by Waste cover image

Beijing Besieged by Waste 2011

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Wang Jiuliang
Directed by Wang Jiuliang
DVD, color, 72 min.

General Adult
China, Environmental Justice, Urban Ecology, Waste Disposal

Date Entered: 06/11/2013

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Some analysts try to understand a society by examining its monuments of culture – its art work, architecture, and cultural practices. But there is another way to examine the values and power structure of a society: follow the trash. Examining the trash of Beijing – a city of 20 million and growing that produces 30,000 tons of waste each day – is the fascinating topic of this documentary. Laws supposedly govern the management of the nearly 500 landfills visited by the filmmaker, but most operate illegally as part of the “underground waste production chain” that feeds off governmental corruption. Junkmen acquire contracts from local officials to haul garbage outside the city. They then hire scavengers to separate the recyclable material and sell it at a profit, leaving the non-recyclable material in dumps that envelop the city. The filmmaker’s clever use of Google Maps provides a fascinating window into the prodigious growth of the many-headed hydra that is Beijing’s trash crisis.

As the city has grown so too has the consumption of precious agricultural lands – not merely to accommodate the residents but also to host their refuse. An informal system of recycling has taken root, as the city’s hordes of destitute and homeless pick through the morass. Livestock feed directly on the mounds of refuse – feeding on lands that not very long before were farms -- while builders construct schools and housing directly on top of landfills. These mountains of waste are the dirty little secret of China’s economic miracle.

Beyond shedding light on Beijing’s garbage problem, the filmmaker has taken a unique perspective – viewing a society through the prism of its waste disposal practices. The camera work is stunning and arresting – following the trash as it makes its way from the apartment complexes and eventually to the landfills. The documentary begins with scavengers on a frigid morning making their way like trolls – hooded and hunched over -- through mounds of trash. The rising sun is barely visible through the smog that seems permanently to enshroud the city. It is like a scene from some post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Urban existence, in all its squalor and filth and hustle and bustle, is captured in this film. Plastic bags litter all the streets and landfills; they fly, tattered and filthy, from barbed wire fences and trees; they swirl and meander in the wind; they get snagged on nearly every available outcropping.

Only the rich and comfortable can escape the presence of the dump; and at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder are the scavengers – 100,000 of them -- who live off the refuse: mining it and sorting it for various bosses, surrounded by mangy mutts and sheep. Villagers forced off the land have taken up a new profession as the toilers in Beijing’s dumps. Meanwhile, the city suffers from a severe water shortage, and what water remains has been fouled by all the landfills. Excrement from long distance buses is dumped on roadsides on the city outskirts. Human excrement flows directly from tanks on trucks into open pools of water in the landfills, along with the byproducts of sewage treatment – a black sludge illegally hauled away from the legal sewage treatment facilities and thrown into the mix. The authorities profit from this trade by lining their pockets that Beijing’s citizens pay for sewage treatment that is never done.

As the city relentlessly expands, spreading its filth all around, the villages and villagers in the way of construction are forcibly removed and their homes and villages destroyed to make room for suburbia and more landfills. Two things happen at once – huge holes in the surrounding mountains are created as a result of the extraction of clay and stone for building; those holes are then immediately filled with the city’s waste – mountains of civilization’s filth to replace nature’s mountains. Pig farmers make swill from human refuse gathered in the city’s restaurants. The swill workers drain the oil from the swill, bottle it, and send it back to the restaurants. They then feed the boiled swill and slop to the pigs, which also go back, butchered, to the city’s restaurants. It is one little bit of revenge of the poor on the rich, who have no idea how their meals are produced.

The film ends, as it begins and continues throughout, on an ironic note: one dump freshly cleared of scavengers will be covered over and become the site for the upcoming International Horticultural Association conference. Beijing, as the filmmaker notes, has become a city surrounded by waste, but the same could be said of most cities around the world, though some are more adept at disguising the waste than others (or, as in the case of the United States, shipping it to poorer cities and countries). We have become accustomed to viewing civilization from the perspective of the gleaming skyscrapers of the world’s megapolises. This documentary shifts our view of civilization to the perspective of the waste dump – providing a startling and disturbing new understanding of the costs of economic growth and progress, of a kind of progress that seems literally to die for.