China is the largest coal consumer in the world. The electricity derived from the coal-fuelled power stations drives the huge economic growth of the past decades. At the current rate of consumption it looks unlikely that the coalfields, which contain 13% of the coal in the world, will last much longer. The environmental and human cost of coal mining and burning is almost incalculable. Zhao Liang returns to Venice with an impressionistic poem of a film centred on coal. Behemoth (2015) is a stunning and moving denunciation of the situation in Inner Mongolia, where the mining industry is permanently changing the face of the landscape. It’s as if Koyaanisqatsi (1983) had been filmed in Mordor.
Liang takes an initially oblique approach. Watching from afar as mine shafts are drilled and mountains levelled, Liang views his topic as a nightmare, filtering it through Dante’s Divine Comedy who he quotes and adapts freely along with his own musing. The behemoth of the title is a monstrous economic development where “wealth accumulates and men decay” according to the director’s statement. The trucks and diggers gouge at the earth and black coal dust covers everything. Trucks line up on the twisting quarry roads to take away the coal, looking like so many worker ants. Exhausted, filthy and wearing facemasks, the miners, drivers and engineers are ‘minions’ to the behemoth.
Liang is not placidly observing and he fractures the horribly beautiful panoramas of waste and destruction as if he cannot just present the problem but must in some way show that his own act of looking is split, partial, broken and unable to conceive the whole. A body lies naked in the wasteland in a striking image. Another man – Dante too had a guide – walks, carrying a mirror on his back. These obvious authorial interventions distinguish Behemoth from that other monster, Leviathan (2012), which took a similarly biblical look at the fishing industry. The camera watches closely, immersing audience in the work and destruction, the deafening cacophony, the choking dust and the mine shaft that takes us down so deep in one unedited shot, it seems to be taking us into the underworld. As we move away from the heart of the disaster, we begin to appreciate the scale of the devastation. In the distance, the slag heaps becoming towering hills with the trucks looking like mere insects crawling across their sides. The levelled mountains occupy half the horizon and shepherds still tend their herds of sheep in what is left of the grasslands below. The workers also emerges as human beings. First in a series of head on portraits, which examines their lined and dirty faces: reading the inscrutable expressions. We also see them cleaning, both themselves and each other, trying to rub away, if only for a moment, the invasive coal dust. There is something almost heroic in their commitment, knowing that it will soon return.
The cost to their bodies goes deeper than dirt: the callused hands, the exhaustion that sees them collapse in their bunks once the work is done, and the sweat that pours off a body in the steel mill. Worse still, the lungs that cough up bottles of thick black liquid, the struggling for breath becomes a job in itself and the graveyards that hold those who finally couldn’t do it any longer. But is this a necessary price for economic growth and lifting a country out of poverty? China surely has a right to its own industrial revolution as much as Europe and the United States. Liang counters such arguments with the sight of China’s ghost cities. These conurbations are groups of cities entire, complete with motorways and tower blocks, both for residential and commercial purposes. Traffic lights turn from red to green, but the only people around are the team of tabard-clad street cleaners who pick at the tumbleweed and twigs. These places are soon uninhabited, there isn’t even litter for them to pick up. The behemoth doesn’t care if people live in the cities, or the coal is needed or not. It’s not here to serve us; we are here to serve it. The digging and destruction, the building and the work, has become an end in itself. Liang has produced a timely and frighteningly beautiful exposé of its worst depredations.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.