"The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March": Lyrical Film Captures China's Young Environmental Campaigners

"The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March" HD Trailer from Michael Raisler on Vimeo
The Green Long March
In 1934, thousands of young Chinese soldiers beat a strenuous, bitter retreat across the countryside that gave birth to political leaders like Mao and launched modern China. It was the Long March, the mythic creation story of revolutionary China. Seventy years later, after that disastrous precedent left a heavy footprint on China's land and skies, thousands of students begin a new voyage across the countryside: the "Green Long March." A new must-see film tells its story.

green long march china documentary film photo

The Road Ahead
The inaugural march in 2007 -- composed of two thousand students from 43 universities that ranged across 22 provinces and 10 natural reserves -- spread across the countryside on ten routes. Their mission: to conduct surveys on the country's environmental damage, spread awareness and offer conservation ideas to rural citizens.

A vivid snapshot of the voyage is offered in "The Road Ahead: The First Green Long March," which had its Manhattan debut this week at the Asia Society (it won top honors at the Queens International Film Festival). Afterwards, Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org who had just returned from campaigning with thousands of young people in DC, sang the praises of the movie and its protagonists. "This incredibly unique thing going on in China is something we have to build on fast," he said.

Moving Portrait
Directed by Ryan Wong, the documentary is told from the perspective of a handful of students from the Beijing Forestry University as they travel, notebooks in hand, to a postcard collection of Chinese regions: the deserts of northwest Xinjiang, the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, the verdant valleys of Sichuan province. They talk to down-and-out fishermen, measure disappearing lakes, and spread the word about the endangered Asiatic black bear.

This isn't a hagiographic PR job, nor is it, per occasional Western taste, a predictable gloom-fest of Chinese environmental devastation. It's a moving, lyrical portrait of young idealists in China -- sometimes thought to be an endangered species themselves -- as they encounter their country's ecological riches.

A Long March
Preserving that bounty is not easy. Older men on a train shoo away the students' "Green Olympics" brochures, and local government officials accompany them on trips to farmers' homes to ensure "harmonious" reports. Though some of them come from the countryside originally, the students marvel at the nature they encounter -- and the hard complexities of China's byzantine governance, which pits national environmental policies against the single-minded focus on economic growth by local cadres.

The government was also an impediment to the film. Filmmakers handed out cameras to students, but hundreds of hours of their footage was confiscated by officials before it could be included in the film.

Still, the existence of the Green Long March and the film -- both of which required official imprimaturs -- is a testament to the increasing willingness of China's officials to promote environmental awareness. Like the film, the sprawling campaign was organized in part by a foreign organization, a sometimes touchy prospect in the context of civil society projects.

Marching On
But since the US-based NGO Future Generations launched the movement in cooperation with the Forestry University in 2007, the program has expanded. In 2008, it reached 2008 kilometers, and joined forces with McKibben's global 350.org movement. The march in 2009 is expected to be even bigger.

Though peppered with slogans and nationalist imagery, the Green Long March is no youth environmental agitprop. When I attended the closing ceremony for the 2008 march, I met an invigorating set of student leaders who were as determined to spread environmental responsibility as any I've met in the West.

One of the ultimate goals, said Future Generation's China coordinator, Frances Freemont-Smith, is to accentuate small, positive actions and spread the word across the country. “If these scattered successes could be both documented and shared, if they can be helped to grow more effective and larger, then China will have begun a national movement of positive environmental action from what is now an uncoordinated set of projects," said Freemont-Smith.


Like the project, the film's success rests not on sweeping, large-scale stories, but on the student's intimate experiences. One girl's attempt to get a permission slip signed by her father in the countryside is a small but poignant tale of determination. When another student leans into the cold rain of a windy mountainside, the camera captures a beautiful communion. "I felt so small there," she says.

The moment echoes the powerful feeling Bill McKibben gets in New York's Adirondacks, which he describes at the start of his canonical The End of Nature. The vast verdant wilderness is not immune to the battering of climate change. "You can still feel small here sometimes, which is for me the great antidote to despair. My daughter, now thirteen, has grown up with an abiding sense of nature's size and peace and meaning."

The dealings of politicians at summits like December's Copenhagen climate talks are crucial. But it may be the young people in fraught environments like that of China, McKibben said after the film, who are best positioned to improve our relationship with nature. "They better do a better job than we've done at managing this relationship. It lies with people whose interests are as much in the future as they are in the present."

Visit the website of "The Road Ahead," and its socially-conscious production company, Cinereach, to learn about future screenings.

See also Future Generations: Green Long March and
350.org: Green Long March

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