by Gabriel Valdez
I may have just watched the best film of 2015. It is certainly the best job of pure reporting I have ever seen. It is Chai Jing’s Under the Dome, a documentary on China’s air pollution disaster.
The easiest comparison would be An Inconvenient Truth, but while the presentation is similar, Under the Dome is a different animal. Despite being loaded with even more information, it’s less science lecture and more personal journey. Chai takes you along the path an investigative reporter takes when following a story. She translates the excitement of discovery to her audience. Even when what she – and you – discovers is horrifying, she ties two pieces of information together, two threads of plot suddenly becoming one, and in doing so often reveals new information about how China’s government cheats its own rules and regulations.
After the self-financed film exploded – hundreds of millions of views in China in just a few days – China’s government effectively banned it. The sheer extent of investigative journalism Chai has undertaken, essentially dismantling the hypocrisy of whole sections of China’s government, is both staggering and audacious. This is reporting, this is a documentary, yes, but it’s also the most exciting thing I’ve seen this year.
Chai is an expert at using research to trap and evoke emotional responses from her interview subjects. This isn’t the baffled, bloviating mutterings we’re used to getting from the likes of Wolf Blitzer, Don Lemon, and Sean Hannity here in the U.S. This is reporting boiled down to its essentials – it’s striking how exciting journalism can be when it’s based on factual research, and not just the product of talking heads shouting at each other.
Essentially, Chai constructs a film – as director, host, and investigative reporter – that is one of the most nerve wracking yet enthralling journeys that I’ve had watching a movie in some time. She hits on all fronts – emotional, narrative, factual – but always relies on information to do it. Watching the film takes on a “just one more minute” feel. I intended to break it into two chunks when I saw it, but I just kept watching. One more minute. One more minute. I couldn’t take my eyes off. I had to know where Chai went next, what she uncovered next, what quote would get an official into trouble next.
There are artistic moments – a cute superhero cartoon illustrating how carcinogens in the air fight off our body’s immune system, an overwhelming photo collage that combines dozens of photographers taking pictures of dozens of cities’ smoggy skies every day for a year.
There are brave investigative moments – going undercover to record the pollution at an illegal steel plant, or setting up a road block to test illegally made trucks.
There are pointed yet fairly handled interviews in which Chai deftly corners officials with the sheer amount of research she’s done. This is a tremendously informative, artful, and skillfully made movie.
Under the Dome is freely watchable on YouTube. It is a staggering documentary achievement. I know the sun’s out this week. Much of the U.S. is enjoying its first glimpse of Spring after a bitterly tough Winter. But watch this film. Find the time. At once, in chunks, I don’t care. Find a way. It might be the best film you’ll see this year. The YouTube video posted in the middle of this article – that’s the whole film. It’s free, it’s needed, it’s important.
Some films are undeniable. Under the Dome is already having an impact, sending ripples throughout China. All because one woman decided to be a good reporter in a world where that’s undervalued.