Rainmakers is a different kind of environmental documentary. When Dutch filmmaker Floris-Jan van Luyn was asked by German producer ZDF ARTE to make a film about pollution in China, he did not want to take the easy way out. Many such films could and have been made out of statistics and interviews with government officials. Speaking from Taipei, where Rainmakers has just been screened, he said everyone knows what environmental waste looks like, and knows it is bad.
Van Luyn, who spent six years as a foreign correspondent in China, wanted to do something different. “I am not a journalist anymore,” he said. “I really don’t want to make journalist stories. So I wanted to approach this film in a different way.”
The result is an environmental film that is really about people. In four chapters, artfully structured around the theme of the classical elements, we meet four ordinary Chinese citizens: Wei Dongying spends her days sampling water and petitioning local authorities in a southern village where fish smell like paint; in Beijing, Zhao Lei attempts to organize protests and demonstrations against the city’s deteriorating air quality; Chen Lifang rallies the inhabitants of her town in Hunan Province against a chloropropyl factory that is destroying their river; in Inner Mongolia, the herdsman Nasen struggles to cope with the advance of the desert.
These stories are environmental and political, but what binds them to each other, and to us half a world away, is that they are human stories, in which “people are not only struggling for the environment, but also have relationships, and so they fight about who’s cleaning the house.”
Van Luyn lamented the many “prejudiced stories” that colour our discourse about China and depict it as a monolith with black and white problems and solutions. He finds this narrative “a bit easy.”
“It’s always a massive thing,” he said, “and you never see the faces behind it, and I wanted to really show what it really means to certain individuals.”
Rainmakers shows us not only a side of China that isn’t often seen, but a side of activism that is frequently missed as well. We are inundated with stories of hobbyist activists, who go out looking to fulfill themselves with an adopted cause, but the women in the first three chapters of this film have had activism thrust upon them. They are deeply devoted to their causes, because the causes are their own; real threats that face their families and communities.
When Zhao Lei sadly puts the costumes she used to dance in back into the closet, or when Chen Lifang solemnly confides to the camera her love for her husband, who has taken on the household chores to leave her more time for addressing letters to government officials, we keenly feel how much these women wish there were no need for their activism, and how anxiously they look forward to the day when it will be over.
Van Luyn said that the real aim of his film is achieved in these intimate, personal moments. He believes in telling a story about pollution in China, and hopes that it will make his viewers think, but Rainmakers is about more than that. He explained, “I think when the millions become single faces, then it’s easier for people to make the connection, and say, well, maybe I have to think twice before I buy certain kinds of stuff in China, but I can’t say that that is my aim.”
Rainmakers is a film about how the struggle of human life manifests personally, socially, politically, and ecologically. “I’m not an activist filmmaker,” said Van Luyn. “I’m happy if people just see a human side to this kind of struggle and start to think from there.”