Transcript of the Interdisciplinary Panel Discussion:
Professor Greg Zinman (Assistant Professor, School of Literature, Media and Communication, Georgia Tech): I don’t want to take up too much time, because I know many of you have questions about the production. First off, I’d just like to thank Mr. Wang for his beautiful and brutal film. This is the first time I’ve seen it as I’m sure is true for most of us in this room. I was struck by how deftly the film handled both intimacy and scale. Wang drops us into this factory – literally – we are sort of digging through trash with the children trying to get our bearing of where we are. One of the things that Wang does so deftly in this film is that it’s very hard to get your bearings in this film, because through his framing – that is, where he puts the camera – the human subjects are always dwarfed by their surroundings. Whether it’s the Sisyphean piles of trash that the find themselves in, there’s never any indication that there is any progress made. Imagine waking up every day and being confronted by the equally enormous pile before you. And so one of the things that Wang does so nicely, I thought, is that he shoots from the ground and slightly below his subjects often times, which serves a couple of things. It gives us a real good look at the people we’re dealing with but it also situates them in their environment such that we see them against this backdrop. Whether it’s the trash or the bus stop when Peng takes his family there, humans are so small. There is a sense of – this isn’t Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth where you’re getting lots of facts and contents and figures and charts – you do learn through his framing and through his storytelling, the effects of late capital and the global economy on regular families. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the socialist lie of Mao saying that all families will be provided for and everyone can live a good life, and the castoff of US Weekly, pictures of shoes, the pervasiveness of ideology hangs over every part of the film. And Wang does this without hitting us over the head with it, he uses observation. And this is one of the things I wanted to pick up on in the film, the idea of intimacy. We see the labor that Kun’s family and Peng’s family go through. I’d also like to acknowledge the labor of the filmmaking. It is remarkable to me how [Wang] was able to ingratiate [himself] to these families and how they were able to open up to [him] and [he] was able to get so much from them and spend so much time with them. It’s a level of dedication in filmmaking that we don’t always see. It takes a lot of time and effort – I mean think about how long Wang’s crew must have been there and what didn’t make it into the film. It was a real testament to the filmmaking that he was able to elicit this kind of openness, this generosity both from the family and on the part of the filmmaker too, to get these responses and see it so nakedly. I mean, he was there for the birth of Peng’s children. This child is born in a trash heap onto the dirt. Most people wouldn’t let you film that. I think that’s a real testament to the work that went into the filmmaking. I don’t want to take up too much more time than that, although I have a lot of questions maybe you can ask him on my behalf, on how Wang found these families, and why these families – we learn that there are 5000 factories in that town alone – and you start to wonder, oh my gosh, how many families are there like this.
Professor Eri Saikawa (Assistant Professor, School of Environment Science, Emory University): When we talk about air pollution, we normally think about industry, transport, but we find that potentially 30% of the global carbon emissions might be coming from carbon burning. And that is a lot of emissions. We really don’t know that, and I think Wang laid that out so well. This is happening in so many developing countries, and this is our waste, and we are responsible for this, and developing countries are taking the garbage for us. These health problems that they were taking about, there are so many toxic emissions coming from this garbage, and how much they are getting this impact. It is astounding. There is no great research going on that, nobody has really looked into the problem, and I don’t even know if they are aware that this could be very toxic for them. They know that it is dirty, but do they know that it is potentially even worse than Beijing air? And indoor air pollution is killing more than any other air pollution in developing countries. This film gave us so much opportunity to think about the problems that we are causing in developing countries, and we should really do something when the current administration is not really trying to do anything. We are still responsible. It’s not just about climate change, it is about air pollution which we are responsible for.
Professor Matthew Realff (Professor and David Wang Sr. Fellow, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Georgia Tech): Am I still the only engineer in the room? I might be. I want to say that this is the reality of what the US does with its recycled plastics. At the very bottom of the supply chain are these individuals, working clearly many, many hours of the day, to recover waste. And the question of course that I have as an engineer is, why weren’t they wearing goggles? This is may be slightly flip, but this is exactly the point. This is an incredibly unsafe work environment, they’re shoveling small pieces of plastic into an open grinder, which I can tell you is amazing that these people had all their fingers and all their hands and the rest of their limbs, given the unsafe operating environments. They are pushing children away as they glibly heat a piece of equipment with an open flame. These are obviously extremely poor working conditions and yet they see from these working conditions the terrific sense of need to do this to make the lives of their family better. This is an incredible sacrifice these individuals are making for the next generation and that seems to be the driver for at least one of the film’s protagonists and yet the contrast with one of the other adult film’s protagonists is quite strong and that was very interesting to me. The other thing I would say is the whole question of education and what is education meant by in this film and we see the desire to send their son to an educational environment that seems very sterile and very rote. And yet the wonderful creative play of children in the garbage yard – making the computer out of, essentially, pieces of plastic, the recapitulation of the train station, the recapitulation of the car show – were so creative and so wonderfully drawn, and yet you feel unfortunately that in the end it’s going to be lost. It was very powerful for me, seeing that. I did, by the way, try to write down the numbers and do all the calculations on how much it was costing and frankly I couldn’t work out it out and I don’t think one of the protagonists understood how much he was being paid or he was being really ripped off. I couldn’t figure out which. And I got the sense that his education level was insufficient to really be able to deal with the situation and how tragic that was given his aspirations and his desire to get his family back and seeing that he essentially had no hope of doing so given the large amount of money that was being paid. I found it profoundly moving, it was wonderfully drawn and was a bit sobering if you deal with plastics recycling and know what’s going on.