"This is truly a historic gathering. And the Chinese have a proverb: if a man cheats the earth, the earth will cheat man.” This excerpt is from a speech by President Bush at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, where world leaders trumpeted their promises for sustainable development planning.
As the world weighed in with their impressions, Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) commissioned London-born documentary-maker Bruno Sorrentino to spearhead a groundbreaking, pioneering documentary project: to film 12 babies for the next 20 years, all born in 1992, from China, Brazil, India, Kenya, Latvia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, UK and USA.
Two decades later, the children are on the threshold of adulthood, coinciding with the release of the documentaries at the 2012 Rio Earth Summit. The stories offer a startling portrait of the range of human experience and global change. Some speak of unembellished despair and tragedy. Two of the 12 children are dead.
And then there’s Kay Kay, the girl from Guangzhou. Perhaps the most positive and emblematic one of all, her tale mirrors China’s sweeping social and economic transformation and the rise of a powerful new – and largely urban – middle class. Sorrentino, who describes Guangzhou as a “construction site” in 1992, now declares that it’s “one of the most agreeable, livable cities. I’m amazed at the rapid rate of modernization. It’s changed beyond recognition. But as always, I am cautiously optimistic. I question whether real change has been made, or if they have simply exported pollution from the city to countryside.”
Hailing from a family that was essentially a model of communist China in 1992, the sweet and witty university-bound Kay Kay appears to have a profound sense of self, amidst all the structural and commercial transformation surrounding her. “She is who she is," says Sorrentino. "She’s aware of the sacrifices her parents have made for her. And like all girls her age, she wants a beautiful life but she’s not living in an illusion. She knows how hard she has to work for it.”
Sorrentino and TVE are currently planning to turn Kay Kay’s story, along with the rest, into a full-length cinematic feature. Do these stark accounts truly paint a picture of our fast-changing world and the spoils of globalization over 20 years? Sorrentino admits that they don't, asserting that it wasn’t easy to raise funding for such a long-term project and there was nothing that he could really do. “The discipline imposed by the project was to stick firmly to the same children and families picked at the start, no matter what the outcome, so we had to persevere,” he explains.
And of course, people are asking, after investing 20 years of periodic filming, will the world see the future chapters of Kay Kay's life? “Absolutely, I want to be there to film what happens next,” says Sorrentino.
Watch Kay Kay - The Girl from Guangzhou on www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness