A beautiful journey into hell

Behemoth screened as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016.

Zhao Liang’s latest documentary is the most beautiful journey into hell. Via truly exquisite cinematography the film examines mining in inner Mongolia, an area rich in natural resources and fast becoming an environmental casualty of China’s rabid hunger for coal. The film begins with a wide shot of black mining plains cutting into the mountains. We linger on the tableaux for several moments until an explosion disturbs the serenity: dust and debris fly up into the air as the beast awakens. But the monster of Liang’s film is human greed, albeit on a biblical scale.

What follows is a series of dreamlike scenes of diggers and machinery working day and night to pillage the earth. Even smaller against these dark hills, the workers – “the monster’s playthings” – carrying out invisible orders, moving like pistons and cogs, endlessly sorting through the silt or feeding the fires or travelling deep underground to mine a seam. The work is never-ending, monotonous, dangerous, but there is no place for individuality here: man has become an extension of machine serving a remote manmade god.

We spend time with a sheep farmer and his family, still herding a flock on verdant land right beside the mine; then to the unnamed workers who have toiled all night going home and washing themselves in a plastic basin, scrubbing hard to get rid of their increasingly permanent tattoo of dust and dirt; immigrants working and living in poverty.

These powerful scenes are punctuated throughout by a dream narrative, loosely based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, as an unidentified naked figure appears in the ravaged landscape, curled up in a foetal position; a figure of man before the fall, dreaming of the paradise he once knew: “This is a place that has been destroyed.”

Towards the end of the film we encounter casualties of the harsh working conditions – men suffering from pneumoconiosis, lying like ghosts in a basic hospital. And we travel to the empty high-rise forest of Ordos, one of China’s ghost towns. The furnaces of industry burnt to create this eerie urban jungle where hardly a living being roams: a doomed dream of paradise.

Liang’s resistance to language – bar the Dante-esque musings of the dreamer – disallows the viewer from finding out any more about the people we meet in his visual odyssey; we don’t know how they feel, who they are or how they came to this place. But this allows Liang’s footage to resound with a rich poetic power.

First published by Candid Magazine here.