China: Between Clouds and Dreams

Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

The plight of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is the centre piece of a new environmental documentary series, ‘Between Clouds and Dreams’, to be broadcast across China and subsequently around the world on both terrestrial television, including on Channel 4 in the UK, and via China’s satellite television service.

This stunning new documentary series from multiple British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) winning filmmaker, Phil Agland, shot for Chinese Central Television, was filmed over three years with unique access to the private side of China. The series of five extraordinarily intimate films follows the lives of everyday people. Unfolding through compelling stories of real life human drama interwoven with ecology and natural history, and in particular the story of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Capturing China’s relationship with nature and the environment, as China grapples with the reality of global warming and ecological collapse in its pursuit of an ambitious new future.

Background on how and why the series was produced

It all started four years ago when Phil Agland was asked to consider being a consultant for Chinese Central Television. He suggested that perhaps it would be better to make a series of films on the environment… not really daring to believe it could happen. But it did, and that started an extraordinary two years of filming across the breadth of China from the western part of the Tibetan Plateau to the coast in Jiangsu.

Spoon-billed Sandpipers became important to Phil almost 20 years before on a bank of exposed mud where the Red River exits into the Gulf of Tonkin. He can still vividly recall that moment, when a flock of 15 spoonies, in their stunningly white winter wear, flew in with the incoming tide. Then, in 2008, came the devastating news that the world population of this, the most charismatic of all shorebirds, had collapsed to just a few hundred individuals.

Catching up with them again on the vast mudflats south of Yangkou on the Jiangsu coast in April 2009, he started to think about what he could do to help them at what was clearly a crucial staging site on their migration from Russia to wintering grounds in South-east Asia. Even then, it was worryingly obvious that the pace of reclamation and industrial development was so fast that these precious mudflats would be all but gone within a few short years. The seeds of a television series for an audience in China were beginning to be sown.

And so, three years later, as he discussed the possibility of a series of films on CCTV with a likely audience of a 100 million, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper came to mind. What better than to include their story in a wider environmental narrative spanning the whole of China, and for their story to interweave through the full five hours so that audiences could see just how this little bird, and other creatures like it are so important in the wider context of nature’s life support systems that sustain us humans.

And what better way to tell the story than through the perceptive eyes of children?

The stories the series will tell

Three years later the series is finished and awaiting broadcast. It has evolved into a story about China’s relationship with nature and the environment as told through compelling stories of real life drama – through extraordinary people across this hugely important land. Their human stories interweave with detailed ecology and natural history to give insight into our interdependent world. But it is children who are really the heart and soul of the series, for they are the future – through their eyes we discover what kind of world they wish to inherit as their country grapples with the reality of global warming and ecological collapse in the pursuit of an ambitious new future. The story of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper is woven through each episode so that audiences can begin to understand just why this little bird, and other creatures like it are so important in the wider context of nature’s life support systems that sustain us humans.

The series kicks off with a mystery letter arriving at a primary school on the east coast of China. The reaction of the schoolchildren to its message is to take them, and us on a journey into the very heart of the battle to save the Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

And what the filmmaker hopes will be its legacy

And what of the future? How can we ensure that the nation-wide publicity generated by the series can be used to help safeguard the future of this enigmatic species and all the other shorebirds on the East Asian – Australasian Flyway?

The good news is that, in tandem with the essential on-going scientific work, the film series may help plans for a ‘state of the art’ centre for education and research. A futuristic centre that would be the centrepiece of a sustainable development programme, working with local people to integrate conservation with local economic development.

Its aim would be to help bring ‘wealth’ to the local economy – a combination of financial return and both national and international prestige as a ‘World Centre’ for the study of the ‘Greatest Flyway on Earth’ – researching intertidal, high tide wetland and marine ecology, traditional use, and the study of climate change and rising sea levels. This work would reach out to schools and universities across China. The Centre would be at the heart of a living, working, evolving demonstration that conservation and development can and should be two sides of the same coin. The ‘Ocean Flyway Centre’ at the heart of a national marine reserve is a dream at the moment, but a dream that one day must become a reality.

Broadcast details

The UK broadcast will start on Saturday November 5th at 7.00pm on Channel 4, running every Saturday for five weeks. View the Channel 4 trailer here.

This page will be updated as more broadcast details become available.

Relevent article: 

Original article:
Episode guide of Channel 4: China: Between Clouds and Dreams
Visit  the EAAFP SBS Task Force page for more information on Spoon-billed Sandpiper

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