From time to time, we welcome Docs In Progress community members to share their thoughts on films out in the doc-o-sphere.  Beth Kelly recently checked out a Chinese environmental documentary which may less well known in the usual doc fest circuit, but has been making waves via social media around the world.

by Beth Kelly

In a country known for clamping down on controversial voices, Under the Dome made an unprecedented attempt to reveal the shocking levels of pollution that exist right now in China. Even though the Chinese government initially backed the film, it has now been scrubbed from most video sharing websites (though you can still find it on YouTube, which is blocked in the country).


The self-funded film comes with a personal story—while pregnant with her daughter, journalist Chai Jing discovered her unborn baby had a tumor. Though it was benign and removed immediately after the child’s birth, the experience left her shaken. Afterwards, she spent a year researching the country’s severe air pollution, which she considered to be the root cause of the child’s medical problem. Given her findings, that conclusion isn’t the least bit surprising.

Combining lecture footage—in parts reminiscent of a TED-talk presentation—with moving personal statements and interviews, she visits factories and speaks with Chinese toddlers who have never seen a clear blue sky or even real clouds. As Jing proves throughout the film, large parts of the country have been irrevocably damaged by the rapid and unregulated expansion of industry. Jing begins her story in Shanxi, a town that used to be famous for its vinegar, but is now known primarily for its shocking levels of air pollution. Sadly, this is no longer news for anyone who lives in the province. During the year that she worked on the film, only 190 days were clear enough for children to play outside. The other 175 were too smoggy to be considered “safe.”

How dangerous are China’s skies? At one point in the documentary, Jing carries an air quality “sampling film” to give audiences a visual representation of the toxic particulate matter choking China’s atmosphere. After taking her samples to the lab, even the scientists were taken aback. They found nearly 14 times the acceptable level of carcinogens, a level too high even to safely recreate within a lab environment. However, these are the conditions that millions of Chinese people must live in, without reprieve, day in and day out.

When confronting authorities with these shocking statistics, Jing received familiar answers. Most of these enormous, smog-belching plants are simply “too big too fail.” Were they to shut down, discontinuing their use of dirty coal, they would take thousands of important jobs with them. “I am afraid to open my mouth because I fear people would see that we have no tooth,” said division director at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which has been compared to a “toothless tiger” for its general ineffectiveness and lack of political clout.

Beyond causing an uproar in China, the wide reach of the film has had additional surprising repercussions. On the second of March, the first weekday after the movie appeared online, stocks in the fields of pollutant treatment and solar energy plans rose considerably. Jing herself commented, saying that “Environmental protection is not a burden but a source for innovation. It can increase competition, create jobs, and lifts the economy.”

In the West, Jing’s work has been compared to Davis Guggenheim's collaboration with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth, and Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, which is widely credited as sparking the environmental movement within the United States. Urging viewers to take immediate action, in the film Jing shows a series of pictures revealing the diverse beauty of each season. Many of her friends have asked, why is she doing all of this? Why did she leave her job and risk her life to question the haze that continues to blanket the country? "It’s simple," she says, "I'm no longer afraid of dying—instead, I am afraid of living, and raising my daughter in a world where it’s too dangerous to laugh, to breathe deeply, to immerse oneself in the inherent beauty of nature."

Under the Dome in many ways represents a new direction in documentary film outreach. While it has not received much attention in documentary circles, it has, however, been widely discussed and disseminated throughout other visible media platforms (Upworthy among others), garnering hundreds of millions of hits and reaching Western audiences with dramatic force once the subtitled version became available. The film poses tough questions to all global governments. Ultimately it asks, what is more important? The health of a country's citizens and environment, or relentless capitalistic growth and secretive political agendas? While sudden transformational change seems unlikely, one can hope that this film will inspire other singular acts of journalistic bravery.

While the film may be gone from Chinese media sources, that isn’t the same as erasing it from public memory. As this powerful film proves once again, anyone who thinks they’re too small to be effective has never been in bed with a mosquito.

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