ENVIRONMENT / Balancing conflicting political demands for clean air and water - and a thriving economy - in a one party state is not an easy task.
Director: Meng Han
Producer: Vincent Du
Country: China, Netherlands, South Korea

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 party chairman is told he will be fined if he does not sort out the problem.

Langfang’s air quality inspectors walk a delicate tightrope between closing down family firms and enforcing national regulations.

There is an attempt at telling the story of those whose lives and livelihoods are affected by the forced closure of businesses, and the scenes of a small car repair shop owner pushed from pillar to post in the environmental department offices as he tries to find out how he can acquire a chemically-based spray paint permit will be familiar to anyone who has brushed up against local bureaucracy anywhere in the world.

A protest by locals outside the city party headquarters – carefully filmed by police in attendance – shows a degree of autonomous political protest that recent news stories of arrested coronavirus whistleblowers seem to belie. And when put on the spot about tackling the larger polluters, Director Li admits that there is a massive difference between closing down a family run firm that employs 10 people and a major concern that has 10,000 workers.

Smog Town-China-documentary-MTR-post1
Smog Town, a film by Meng Han


One cannot expect a film shot in China and, presumably, subject to the media censorship that extends to news outlets, to be critical of the Party and President Xi Jinping, but to quote his statements promising that «economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand with pure water and clean air» without a hint of irony, seems a missed opportunity.

The coronavirus pandemic that was first recorded in China – leading to an unprecedented shutdown affecting billions of people – has proved with abundant clarity that the way to clear China’s skies of pollution is to stop the economy. Photographs shot from the International Space Station showed how rapidly pollution cleared over China’s industrial heartlands in February just days into the lockdown.

Tackling pollution in a country that has industrialised as rapidly as China is going to take more than the admirable efforts of Uncle Smog Buster and his team.

Smog Town plays in DOK.panorama at DOK.fest Munchen. – unspooling online May 6 – 24 due to the coronavirus pandemic.