ENVIRONMENT: Balancing conflicting political demands for clean air and water - and a thriving economy - in a one party state is not an easy task.
Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
Published date: May 2, 2020

There are hidden gems in this Chinese documentary filmed in one of the country’s most polluted cities, Langfang, just 40km outside the capital Beijing. They are buried deeply and sparsely as if to escape the censors, but they are there to be found by the attentive.

Domestic and industrial coal burning is strictly banned in Langfang, which suffers blinding days of smog as industrial pollution, chemical fumes and dust kicked up from scores of massive building sites combine with sluggish winds to concentrate choking layers of dangerous fog over the city.

Lead by a charismatic (and rather egotistic) department chief, Director Li – a published author and self-proclaimed environmentalist, whom children from a middle school dub as «Uncle Smog Buster» – Langfang’s air quality inspectors walk a delicate tightrope between closing down family firms and enforcing national regulations.

The rounds

Developed at top international film festivals including IDFA and Tokyo Docs and the recipient of former’s Bertha Fund and the Dutch NL Film Fonds, Smog Town is, I hesitate to say given the country in which it was made, a little smug.

It sticks closely to the story of courageous officials working all hours to combat pollution and improve the worst three polluted cities in the country (they fail and the mayor is demoted) while abiding by Communist party discipline and attending regular, boring and useless meetings where comrades are exhorted to meet their targets, lest senior party officials suffer.

We follow them on their inspection rounds – mostly to small family-run firms that are illegally spray painting cars, doors, or metal components – but while the major polluters (steel factories) are alluded to, there does not seem to be any action taken at that level. Villagers who cannot afford gas heating (like one member of the inspection team) burn wood and coal in illegal boilers to heat water for their communities. Asked where she got the coal, a ballsy woman tells the inspectors: «Just fine me a couple of thousand yuan, I’m not going to rat on my source». Instead, the village …

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