Sue Williams, a New York-based documentary filmmaker, has spent much of her career making films about China. Starting in the 1980s, she has made five feature-length documentaries depicting China’s modern history from the 1911 revolution to the story of the restless young generation before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Death by Design, her latest film, is partially about China’s electronics industry that is tarnished by sweat-shop working conditions and environmental pollution. But the story touches more on the problems within global supply chains – tracing them back to Silicon Valley in California, a tech hub still haunted by toxic chemical leaks from US computer chip makers three decades ago, and following entrepreneurs around the world who are trying to reduce and recycle the world’s mountains of electronic waste.
What is the context of the documentary and what do you want to tell the audience?
About five years ago I met Ma Jun [a well-known Chinese environmentalist and investigative journalist, who founded the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs]. I was really interested in his work and so impressed with what he was doing. At first, I thought of just doing a portrait of Ma Jun. But as I looked into the electronics industry, I saw a much bigger story than just China.
One thing that struck me was that the explosion of the electronics industry coincided with the opening of China. And that gave the industry the possibility to make things on a scale that wouldn’t have been possible in the US. So I decided to look at what happened to the industry in the US, and I found the horrible story of Silicon Valley in its early days. That history is important because it shows that when those companies came to China, they knew what would happen. They knew they were going to pollute the environment, to make workers sick, to poison communities. I felt that was an important story to tell.
Some people blame the e-waste problem on globalisation, particularly the outsourcing of production and waste disposal. How does globalisation change manufacturing?
It’s made easier for [e-waste] to be in someone else’s backyard. Americans don’t care if it’s in someone’s backyard. Nor do Europeans, Chinese or anyone. If you don’t see it, it’s not very meaningful for you. So who cares about Guiyu township [one of the world’s largest e-waste dismantling sites, in Guangdong province] or families there who are making a living dismantling e-waste. But if you make things properly, without the toxic elements in the beginning, they wouldn’t be there at the end when they are being taken apart. So it’s partly globalisation, but mostly it’s about corporate greed.
Who, then, should be responsible?
Everyone. Me and you. We all use devices, so we are all implicated. I think brands need to be responsible for how they make things. They need to be transparent. They all talk about how green their offices are, but they don’t talk about how their supply chains are green. It’s easy to make an Apple Store green. It’s a lot harder to make chip makers green. And that, as I said earlier, will take will and determination.
Consumers are responsible, and so are governments. Death by Design is no more critical of China than it is of America. Everyone shares the blame. Someone said to me, it’s a perfect triangle of government, brands and consumers. We want cheap stuff, we want it fast, and we want to toss it when we are bored. This is the result.
Under the Trump administration, many expect a return of manufacturing jobs to the US. Can country deal with the environmental impact of the electronics industry?
If Trump thinks manufacturing will return to then US, it just shows how little he understands about how things are made. He has limited business experience and a very limited world view. If you have ever been to China, to Dongguan or Shenzhen, you will see working conditions that no American would tolerate. We don’t even have the skills in America any longer to set up a supply chain like that. I mean that is just unrealistic political campaign rubbish. The real tragedy of the Trump administration and his attitude toward the environment is that science doesn’t care whether you believe it or not. It just is.
How did you plan the shooting of this documentary in the US and in China?
You know filming in China is always a challenge. So we did several trips, all very low-key. Luckily, we have a group of Chinese field producers. But interestingly enough, it’s very difficult to film in Silicon Valley, too. The big brands just hid behind their secrecy. Literally outside Google, we were just shooting buildings from the street, which is perfectly legal. And within about a minute, Google security came out. They yelled at us to leave. We were completely within our rights to stand on the sidewalks to film. That was pretty shocking actually.
In the end, no one would let us in to film. We tried factories in Massachusetts. Since they may have contracts with Apple, Dell or IBM, they couldn’t talk to us either. So in the end, we just hired a helicopter and filmed all over the [Silicon] valley. Those shots are quite revealing because you can see that it is a chemical handling industry from the air in a way that you can’t see from streets.
Have people forgotten the toxic chemical problem of the US electronics industry in the 1970s and 1980s?
The sad irony is that Google headquarters is on the site of an old manufacturing plant, and trichloroethylene is coming back up through the soil into the Google offices just as it is coming from IBM factories in Endicott, New York – mentioned at the end of film – where an elderly couple lost their son. Trichloroethylene doesn’t care where it is, and as we said in the film, there are more toxic Superfund sites in Silicon Valley and Santa Clara County. [Superfund sites are polluted areas where the US government requires long-term environmental remedies.] Those are the toxins that the industry stored poorly at the time. If you extrapolate that to what is happening in China, and the amount of environmental destruction and devastation and community health problems that are going to appear, I don’t think any one is really addressing that. And I am not even sure where you begin to address it.
How has Death of Design been received by the US electronics industry?
They are not really saying anything. We’ve spent most of the last year on the festival circuits. We showed it at several festivals around the Bay area. I know lots of people from the industry came to see it. But they haven’t denied anything.