A crippled city's unlikely savior

By Carole Riesenberg for the Columbia Green Chamber of Commerce

COLUMBIA, Mo 02/26/15 (Green Chamber Profile) -- As Columbia film buffs plan their schedules for the eleventh annual True/False Documentary Film Festival, held March 5-8, they may want to include The Chinese Mayor, produced by Zhao Qi and directed by Hao Zhao.  

The film explores the complexities, pitfalls, and apparent failure of the government's efforts to revive an ancient Chinese city devastated by coal and industrial pollution. 

The Chinese Mayor has the distinction of winning the 2015 World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access.  
From the Sundance Institute Review:
"Once the thriving capital of Imperial China, the city of Datong now lies in near ruins.

"Not only is it the most polluted city in the country, it is also crippled by decrepit infrastructure and even shakier economic prospects.

"But Mayor Geng Tanbo plans to change all that, announcing a bold, new plan to return Datong to its former glory, the cultural haven it was some 1,600 years ago.  Such declarations, however, come at a devastatingly high cost.  Thousands of homes are to be bulldozed, and a half-million of its residents (30 percent of Datong’s total population) will be relocated under his watch.

"Whether he succeeds depends entirely on his ability to calm swarms of furious workers and increasingly perturbed ruling elite. The Chinese Mayor captures, with remarkable access, a man and, by extension, a country leaping frantically into an increasingly unstable future."
Citizens of Datong are raising vigorous objections and mounting public protests.  They learn that overcoming the detritus of unrestricted environmental pollution will require personal sacrifice.  Many, if not most, will be forced to move, or perhaps even be rendered homeless while waiting for "affordable" housing that is not only too expensive, but often unavailable. 

Entire neighborhoods will be razed for the mayor to bring his city up to speed environmentally and present itself as a tourist attraction.  Crumbling infrastructure, bureaucratic and contractor corruption, both of which ultimately play havoc with the lives of the citizenry, add to the difficulty of achieving the mayor’s goals. 

At what personal and political cost can he create environmental progress for his city?  Are his goals justifiable? 
The Chinese Mayor brings to mind the complex struggles of Americans facing the inevitable reality of climate change, and the need for global environmental action which will inevitably mean sacrifice of some kind. 

-- Carole Riesenberg is a communications coordinator for the Columbia Green Chamber of Commerce, with San Diego and Tampa, one of only three official Chapters of the US Green Chamber of Commerce