Matt Sheehan: Silent documentary on China’s unspooling environmental disasters

First posted January 26, 2016

The 2015 film “Behemoth” opens with an mining explosion and closes with a ghost city. The 84 minutes in between are a wordless exploration of what connects the two — the environmental tragedy that has mirrored China’s economic miracle. Shot over several years in the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, “Behemoth” bears witness to grasslands swallowed by mines, lungs caked with coal dust and skies shrouded in smog.

A coal miner in Zhao Liang’s documentary Behemoth. Photo: Zhao Liang

The movie is the latest attempt by the acclaimed filmmaker Zhao Liang to walk the line between art house cinema and didactic documentary, between the visually lush and the politically potent. “All artists will express things about society in their work, but the most important is still the work of art itself,” Zhao told The WorldPost. “I’m not that kind of news-focused artist. I prefer to use the language of art to create something.”

“Behemoth” contains no dialogue. The only semblance of narrative derives from subtitled lines from the “Divine Comedy,” the 14th-century Italian poem considered one of the great works of Western literature. The poem depicts its author, Dante Alighieri, being guided through hell, purgatory and heaven by the Roman poet Virgil and Dante’s beloved Beatrice.

Zhao read the “Divine Comedy” while shooting “Behemoth,” and decided to incorporate the poem into his otherwise wordless film, tweaking the language where necessary. Instead of hell, purgatory and heaven, Zhao’s camera plunges through pitch-black mines, hellfire iron furnaces and a gleaming ghost city. Where Dante followed a Roman poet, the movie’s point of view follows a nameless miner, face smeared with coal dust, as he goes about his workaday life. There is also a naked man whose face we never see, though we follow his gaze as he regards strip mines, skyscrapers and other features of the new China.

Balancing cinematic artistry and social impact is something Zhao has been doing for two decades. He first rose to international prominence for gritty documentaries that examined the dark underbelly of the Chinese state: police abuse of suspects and the plight of ordinary citizens who appeal local grievances to the central government, only to be beaten and arrested….,behemoth_us_56a59798e4b0d8cc109a8899%3Fsection%3Dindia