By John Clapp | April 6, 2008

Journalist/filmmaker Michael Zhao delivers a staggering punch with “eDump,” a documentary that unearths the often-overlooked dangers of e-waste (i.e., leftover electronic innards like circuit boards, wires and computer chips). In 20 minutes, Zhao convincingly illustrates why some electronics manufacturers’ reputations of social consciousness are far off the mark, as he follows computer components’ post-consumer journey to villages in China and Taiwan, where poorly paid laborers work in hazardous conditions, stripping and sorting equipment for reuse.

Tragic images underscore the extent of e-waste’s impact on natural life in developing countries. Villages’ sources of drinking water are revealed to be black and contaminated, while riverbanks in some shots appear to be little more than collages of long-forgotten circuit boards. What’s more disturbing, however, is the human element. Kneeling before a backdrop of dark smoke, a young woman demonstrates the way in which plastic grades are determined: She lights a piece of plastic on fire and then smells the smoke.

Zhao speaks with activists and doctors who obviously decry these conditions, and statistics that support their outrage are strewn throughout the production. All the while, we’re reminded that only one industrialized country – the U.S. – refuses to ratify the Basel Convention, a treaty that prohibits the cross-border transport of hazardous waste.

As a film, “eDump” is sometime guilty of sensory overload, but only because Zhao tries to insert an hour’s worth of information into a substantially shorter runtime. The images and audio tracks are undeniably compelling, but they sometimes feel unnecessarily busy, as layers of text, graphics and narration demand the occasional pause.

As a piece of journalism, though, “eDump” is an important achievement. And while this doc’s 20 minutes are filled to the brim, Zhao has a solution for how to address the e-waste story in greater depth: His Web site, which hosts “eDump,” also includes a multimedia section that further examines this issue.

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