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Jia Zhangke’s short film calls attention to Chinese pollution

A couple kisses on a hill next to a billowing smokestack. A child draws a sun on a dusty car windshield.

Celebrated Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke recently released Smog Journeys, a short film sponsored by Greenpeace East Asia that’s meant to mobilize the Chinese people and government to up the anti on the nation’s “war on pollution.”

“I hoped to promote people’s awareness of self-protection, and protection of the environment, and make more people start to realize on their own what is going on around them,” Jia said in a video interview with Greenpeace East Asia. “Besides that, I also sensed something poetic in this—that the power of life remains in people even in horrible environments.”

Jia’s films (A Touch of Sin, Still Life) have won various awards on the international film festival circuit, including at Venice and Cannes. But in a country where the media is censored and functions primarily as a tool for state propaganda, Jia is considered an “underground filmmaker” because he often reports on issues outside the Chinese state party line.

Smog Journeys is no exception. The short film centers on two families of different socioeconomic backgrounds—one a coal miner, the other a fashion designer—going through their daily routines, united by heavy haze of PM2.5. By placing elegant scenes of Chinese life to a background of grey sky, Smog Journeys, a film about pollution, manages to leave sentimental lumps in audience members’ throats.

“Clean air is a basic necessity for healthy living. It’s sad if children grow up with more smog than clean air and blue skies, as depicted in Jia’s film,” Yan Li, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace East Asia, said in a press release. “Bringing back clean air needs to be a priority, and it requires urgent action. Greenpeace calls on the government to take immediate steps to safeguard the health of its citizens, cut coal and shift towards cleaner renewable energy.”

Jia Zhangke
Jia Zhangke

The film is meant to highlight a new study produced by the environmental organization that found that more than 90 percent of Chinese cities exceeded the national average limit for PM2.5 in 2014. Greenpeace and the China Air Quality Index worked together to collect the particulate matter every hour of every day of the 190 Chinese cities surveyed.

The study follows a 2014 report released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in honor of World Environmental Day, which found that only three “key” Chinese cities met yearly air quality standards in 2013 (including the Tibetan capital Lhasa, located at an altitude of 11,450 feet in the Himalaya Mountains.)

Chinese perspectives on pollution illustrate the paradox of a changing China: the clash between filmmakers like Jia campaigning the government to address the country’s growing smog problem, and those who view pollution as a sign of progress.

In China’s capital, some Beijingers proudly boast that their bodies have become immune to the grey air around them, and view the black cloud as a sign that modern China is rich, developing, and that life is only getting better. Rumors that the pollution is from America or Europe, or that it is due to “farmers burning their crops,” are often approved by the Chinese government and circulated by the Chinese press. Last February, some Chinese bloggers were impressed when Chinese president Xi Jinping took a walk through a Beijing neighborhood without a mask. One blogger commented, “The leader isn’t wearing a mask. He’s using willpower to repel the smog.”

Jia’s film does not place blame on where the pollution comes from, only that it is an issue that needs to be resolved. It is not the first film to come out of Beijing that shows how smog permeates daily life.

“Some choose to hate, we chose to love. Pollution reached hazardous levels over the weekend of filming Beijing’s rendition of ‘Happy.’ This is how Beijingers reacted to the smog,” reads the “About” section of the viral “Happy” in Beijing music video.

Set to the tune of Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy”, the music video features foreigners and locals alike dancing around Beijing landmarks to a background of heavy smog. Like Smog Journeys, it highlights the fact that, despite hazardous PM levels, life goes on in vibrant Beijing. Temporarily accepting China’s air pollution is mei banfa, a popular Chinese phrase and philosophy that means “nothing can be done.”

“I wanted to make a film that enlightens people, not frightens them,” says Jia. “The issue of smog is something that all the citizens of the country need to face, understand and solve in the upcoming few years.”

— Nona Tepper


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