Before the Flood II - Gongton 2008
Distributed by dGenerate Films, c/o Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Directed by Yan Yu
DVD , color, 88 min.
China, Ecology, Engineering, Sociology, Environmental Activism
Date Entered: 12/09/2013Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach
In this follow up to the prize-winning 2005 documentary Before the Flood, Yan Yu revisits the tragic human dimensions of dam building in twenty-first century China. Following the model of other industrializers in the twentieth century, the Chinese government initiated an era of dam building to satisfy the country’s insatiable hunger for power and growth. The lives of those in the way of the rising waters – 1.4 million people along the Yangtze River basin – were sacrificed on the altar of China’s autocratic capitalism, that odd hybrid of the communist one-party state and capitalist-fueled growth at any cost. Officials improvised methods for seizing property, assessing its value, moving residents, and providing compensation before completion of the Three Gorges Dam project in 2008. The process was rife with corruption, chaotic, and unjust – especially for older residents. Whether or not the millions of kilowatts produced by the complex of dams – and the economic development those kilowatts have produced – is worth the cost is a standing question for viewers, but certainly not for those forced to relocate.
This sequel to the first Before the Flood is considerably shorter – 60 minutes versus 147. Whereas the first documentary focused on the relocation of urban residents for the Three Gorges Dam, this film takes the perspective of a particular village, Gongtan. The village is located on a tributary of the Yangtze, also to be dammed for hydroelectric power. Like the city of Fengjie, the subject of the first film, Gongtan had been continuously inhabited for millennia. Initially, residents were determined to organize and protest their treatment, and they seemed to believe that if they took their case to the highest authorities they would be heard and their fate justly managed. But they soon realized that they had as little chance to influence their future as changing the weather – or in this case, preventing a man-made flood and catastrophe. People grumbled and complained in the film, blaming local party officials, who in turn blamed the central authorities. Some suspected that even the protest organizers were being paid by the secret police to flush out those who might follow the protests. Despite opposition and resistance from villagers, those who were displaced were powerless to change their fate. That realization, along with the constant threat of arrest and harassment by the police, suggests the irresistibility of the forces of modernization in China. Disunity, fear, and mistrust ultimately prevailed over solidarity against the project. One after another protestors angrily accepted the inevitability of their forced relocation, taking measly compensation money and moving out of their soon-to-be bulldozed homes.
Villagers clearly seem to have lost faith in the communist party authorities, one clear casualty of Chinese economic growth, but they had no sense that there was an alternative to the very system that had victimized them. That inability to imagine an alternative made waging any kind of effective and organized resistance all but impossible. The local authorities, for their part, did seem genuinely concerned, and they organized meetings to field and answer questions. But precisely because they were limited in their ability to address villager concerns – because the decision to build the dam was not theirs and because their job was to implement orders from above – the meetings only reinforced the villagers’ sense of powerlessness.
The people who agreed to be filmed clearly took a risk. That they were willing to risk their futures before the omnipresent police and threat of arrest is a testimonial to their bravery, but also to their desperation. Yan Yu’s documentary is ultimately a poignant reminder of the downside of technological progress – and of the things that have been lost, rather than gained, from China’s dramatic economic successes.