Waking the Green Tiger

Reviewed by: Jeri Parrent

In the Southwestern province of Yunnan, the headwaters of China’s three major rivers glide side by side, carving deep, beautiful gorges through the country’s most culturally and biologically diverse regions. The Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers are also the subjects of dozens of proposed dams. The largest is the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam on the upper Yangtze. Second in scale only to the infamous Three Gorges Dam, Tiger Leaping is poised to displace hundreds of thousands of farmers and permanently flood hundreds of kilometers of farmland.

In Waking the Green Tiger, Canadian director Gary Marcuse chronicles the push to stop construction of this massive hydroelectric dam and the ensuing rise of China’s environmental movement. The film introduces us to Chinese activists, journalists and farmers as they inform and organize local villagers facing displacement due to the project, often with little or inaccurate information regarding the compensation and permanence of their relocation. Prominent environmentalists show the villagers the fate that awaits them by visiting nearby communities that have already been relocated by previous dam projects. In perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, we watch villagers go from laughter and song to silence as they meet relocated former farmers who must now pick through garbage to subsist.

Upon return from this journey, the villagers express their fear and outrage about the prospect of being relocated upland: “What do they expect us to eat? Wind?” Their dismay and anger are transformed into action by environmentalists and journalists who risk harassment from local police and sometimes their jobs to help bring national attention to the Tiger Leaping proposal and the hydroelectricity company’s illegal disregard for environmental regulations. 

As clashes intensify, the villagers brave retaliation from local authorities and stand strong in their opposition. In one villager’s words, “When our land and our homes are about to be destroyed, we have nothing to fear.” Ultimately, China’s leaders were compelled to postpone dam construction and give greater scrutiny to its potential negative impacts.

Waking the Green Tiger also seeks to provide an historical context for the evolution of China’s environmental policies and citizen activism. A series of archival film clips and interviews illustrate the Mao-era call to harness nature in the name of national progress, productivity and self-sufficiency – a message that mobilized millions of Chinese people for massive landscape-transforming projects. Some  of those led to erosion, flooding and famine. In a series of interviews, the government’s former environmental protection official talks about measures that have helped to increase awareness about the repercussions of China’s past development practices, promoting media coverage of pollution and leading to policies that gave citizens the right to participate in creating legislation. 

Named the best Canadian feature at Toronto’s Planet in Focus documentary film festival in 2011, Waking the Green Tiger paints a rare portrait of a successful grassroots struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. The film’s greatest strength is the universal relevance of its message for any activist group – irrespective of geography – that is fighting powerful corporate interests to save its landscapes and livelihoods. Truth in the face of misinformation can indeed empower and unite people around a common cause. As one outspoken villager so eloquently stated, “A bundle of chopsticks is difficult to break, but one chopstick is easy to break. So we must all hang together.” 

While this is a story about Chinese people opposing a Chinese dam on a Chinese river, the West’s global economic policies and unquenchable thirst for cheap manufactured goods have also placed huge pressures on China’s limited water and energy resources. We too are culpable, and thus responsible for the future of the Yangtze, making Marcuse’s documentary a useful educational tool for us all. 

Waking the Green Tiger, directed by Gary Marcuse, Canada: Face to Face Media, 2011, 78 minutes

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Reviewer Information

Jeri Parrent is an ecologist with passionate concern for the future of our water supplies-. She keeps bees and writes from her home on the Niagara Escarpment. 

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