Take Aways: Smog Town and the ‘Blue Sky’ Project

by Lee Millington

Take One Action’s ‘Take Aways’ initiative commissions aspiring film critics, creatives and/or community activists to conduct an interview with a filmmaker or protagonist from the films featured in our programme. By connecting young people interested in film and social change with the protagonists or directors/producers behind these films, this project aims to invite a reflection on the connections between local struggles and global realities, while showcasing the talent and insight of the authors and supporting the development of their own practice.

Lee writes about film, TV, and video games, and is a staff writer for Flip Screen and Scratch Cinema. He’s a frequent tweeter about his various passions in entertainment, and mostly enjoys work with a philosophical edge.

Meng Han’s documentary, Smog Town, is a look at pollution problems in a major Chinese city – a topical issue that warrants investigation beyond the film. Han’s work looks at the city of Langfang, located just sixty miles from Beijing, and the appropriately-named “Blue Sky” project to clear the air. What the film does particularly well, though, is to portray the complexities of bringing this to fruition; of the human costs and social questions raised from it. I emailed a few questions to Han in order to gain some greater insight into her thinking behind the project’s beginnings, the challenges faced in bringing about change, and the hopes and expectations she holds for future environmental changed.

Han’s interest in her projects seems to come from an empathy with society at large. Her first feature length documentary, China’s Forgotten Daughters, looks at the lasting impact of the one child policy – and her social interest has expanded cross-culturally into a photo essay called Chinese Adoptees at Home in America. This particular film had been a long developing project, and she explains how her curiosity around China’s pollution worries was spurred largely by awareness that “under this sky, everyone breathes the same air, everybody is equal, nobody can be spared (from the air pollution).” It’s an inclusive, socially-aware attitude that is evident throughout this film.

The project has roots in her reality of residing in Beijing, where in 2013/14 its citizens faced extreme fog that was revealed to actually come from pollutants. However, her work isn’t just big picture scientific analysis but, as per her interests, driven by people and their experiences. 2017 saw the real beginnings of Smog Town: at the time, she “was pregnant, and was therefore exceedingly sensitive to the quality of there.”  This personal connection to the issue eventually resulted in the decision to contact the Deputy Director of Lanfang’s Environmental Protection Bureau, Li Chun-yuan, a figure who she knew would be “a great character.” The documentary was filmed over the following two years, and Han’s instincts on both the importance of the issue and Li’s involvement were proven correct by the film’s depth.

Langfang is an ideal city to centre the film around not just because of Li’s presence but also in that it’s a centrepoint of the issue. For one, it’s a city that was notably suffering from heavy pollution – but it was also an important target for rectifying that because, as merely 60 miles from Beijing, its smog “was considered a “political mission back then”. Han continues that “if a task was called a “political mission” it means there is a sense of urgency and significance that goes with it.” – and this is something we see on screen with deeply felt concerns around hitting targets. Indisputably, then, Langfang should be a perfect example of what results when there’s strong political will towards improving the environment.

With such pressure on Langfang to improve its environment the path towards that is naturally fraught with challenges, and anyone involved in the task faces frustrations along the way. “I recorded some really authentic scenes along the way, as you can see in the film. Government officials are humans too” said Han, and her comment reflects the reality we see on the screen with “complex emotions including disputes, incomprehension and so on” all evidently driven by a personal passion to get to the heart of the problem. The frustrations felt by the likes of Li are mirrored by Han’s experiences. “Sometimes, I feel powerless. We (filmmakers) can only make a film, showing the dilemma. However, the problem cannot be resolved. This is the dilemma of documentary making.” It’s a dilemma, however, that Han tackles expertly in this film by giving room for the complexity of this particular issue to unfold.

A line of women holding parasols walk down a street. All except for one are wearing masks to cover their mouth and nose.
Still from Smog Town

A key concern around bringing about change is also the impact on industrial workers, with Li and his staff finding themselves in situations where the livelihoods of others end up at risk. Han refers to a particular example of a car repair factory in the film that is at risk of closure: “He [Li] had concerns, but it was not something within the range of his power.” Han further considers that “the problem of power checks and balances between various government departments is exposed here.” This is laid bare by the film in its observation of the Environmental Protection Bureau going about its work, several different workplaces caught within its scrutiny. Li and his colleagues are sympathetic figures in their fervent aims, but one of the strongest elements of the documentary is how it directs the conversation around environmental change away from political will towards the reality of what that means for individuals.

A realistic, clear-headed optimism seems to characterise Han’s view of the situation. Han recognises that “scientific research and planning need to be done in advance” to help make clearer, fairer judgements about where environmental action needs to be taken, and thinks that is something that will come with a younger generation. New members of the EPA are “the younger generations with professional backgrounds. Personally speaking, real progress relies on science, instead of mainly on administrative orders and administrative means.” But neither does she neglect the role of politics, pointing out how affordable environmentally-friendly technology is also necessary to fairly effect change. This wide-ranging awareness reflects the documentary’s feel as something constructive rather than critical or simplistic.

The question of individual change is one that is central to the film, as confronting the difficulties around how to fairly put policy into practice relies on knowing at what scale change needs to occur. Here, again, Han offers a realistic appraisal of the situation, seeing that “personal changes are vital, such as lifestyle changes, reducing waste, buying less, and recycling more” but recognising that these actions are complemented by larger-scale ones such as the encouragement of the use of electric vehicles. Her caution comes around the need to recognise that change requires a process. “Closing large polluting steel plants in a short period of time, in fact, when the employment problem is not solved, will create backlash” she observes, implicitly recognising the symbiotic nature of any meaningful, lasting development, and effectively shining a light on the well-meaning but disjointed efforts that have brought us to the present day.

I was also keen to know how she perceived environmental issues on a larger scale, and what seemed an even knottier issue of how nations might unite to prevent global catastrophe. She quotes an old Chinese saying — “the one to tie the bow must untie the bow” – that reflects the reality that we all must recognise the part that we have to play in making a change. It’s clear from the film that there is some political will, but the battle is bigger than that, as “we all need to cross the cultural and political barriers, unite, take the initiative to assume responsibility to solve environmental problems”. In that sentence seems to sum up much of what we can glean from her depiction of Langfang’s issues: that we will only skirt the edges of the problem until we employ more empathy, question the way we’re working, and unite in our efforts. It seems like a hard task, but Han and her insightful work point a route forward if we’re willing to absorb the scope of the task ahead.

Read the full interview here.

Take One Action’s Take Aways initiative is supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s `Film Audience Network, and funded by Screen Scotland and National Lottery funding from the BFI.