Director Jiu-liang Wang is one of the few documentary filmmakers in China to have taken on the government and won. The photographer-turned-director’s debut documentary, 2011’s Beijing Besieged by Waste, discovered the city-sized hills of garbage trucked to the outskirts of the Chinese capital, where displaced families lived in houses made of trash. The country’s populist leader, Premier Wen Jiabao, had the illegal ring of refuse sites investigated and then cleaned up, which was at once a major victory and just the beginning of Wang’s dive into the dirty downside to China’s capitalist surge.

Next up: A new doc called Plastic China, which played at the Sundance Film Festival and screened as part of the Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art on February 23rd. Just like Beijing Besieged by Waste, the movie uncovers a gnarly scene beyond the cosmopolitan city.

“We figured out that the waste wasn’t necessarily Chinese waste, so I started to research what was behind this huge mountain of waste and all the dumping, and the fires, and smog,” Wang told Inverse, through a translator, at Sundance.

The success of the first film got Wang invited to California, where he toured recycling plants as part of his next round of research.

“I saw the manager pointing to some of the garbage that was being sent out and saying, ‘Those are going to China,’ and I said, ‘what?!’” Wang recalled. “I wanted to find out the origin of the garbage and realized that they were importing waste from the west and other developed countries, even in Asia, like Japan and Korea.”

Wang turned his focus to imported plastic, and after some digging, learned that it was being brought to a little town in the province of Shandong, along the coast. And so he set off to the rural region… where he encountered a lot of resistance from those involved in the remedial waste management industry.

“That part of the industry is very sensitive, and if you have nothing to do with them, you can’t get in,” Wang said. “And I was carrying a camera, so it was especially tough at the beginning. The people who had a stake in it did not welcome the shooting.”

There are over 5,000 little unregulated recycling plants in the town alone, giving Wang plenty of subject options. After six months of getting to know two families who worked at one small plant, Wang was allowed intimate access to their lives. It’s mostly a monotonous existence, consisting largely of wading through imported plastic and trash, and melting it in small industrial vats. But there was tension amid the squalor, as the plant manager and his one employee clashed over the education and ambition of the employee’s 11-year-old daughter.

Yi-Jie, who lives in a spare room at the plant with her parents and siblings, spends her days working and constructing imaginary worlds atop the piles of trash that cover the ground. She builds forts inside the recyclables and rifles through Western magazines, piecing together clues about life beyond the garbage and enriching it with fantasies. A magazine advertisement for the Sandals Resorts looks like paradise; catalogs with computer parts offer up opportunities to build paper versions of electronics she could never afford.

“They don’t know how the United States really is, because all they have received is information from Chinese TV, which is made by the Ministry of Media,” Wang said. “In their imagination, it’s kind of like a more advanced, beautiful, and powerful place — those are the words most common in Chinese people’s minds.”

A scene from 'Plastic China'

The young girl would love to visit the United States, but she’d settle for going to school — something her father, Peng, an alcoholic who works for the plant manager, has no interest in making happen. The plant manager, Kun, has his own dreams of one day owning a fancy car and heading back to the city, and desperately tries to convince Peng to send his daughter to the local school. But Peng has no money, and anyway, Yi-Jie has to take care of her younger siblings and contribute to the recycling work.

That’s the main source of outward tension in the film, though the squalor in which they all live is a painful commentary on the costs of rapid growth in such a stratified country. It’s actually incredible that the film, which calls into question the Chinese government’s devotion to environmentalism and the welfare of its people, actually made it out of the country. When asked about the dangers facing him, Wang just shrugged.

“When I see the value in something, and it’s necessary to communicate it to a mass audience, any obstacles that might stop me, they don’t exist,” he said. “As a grownup in China, I share a responsibility of finding ways to make the country a better place to live.”