As China Hungers for Coal, 'Behemoth' Studies the Ravages at the Source

The artist and filmmaker Zhao Liang has shed light on some of the darkest corners of Chinese society, filming in locations as obscure as a shantytown here known as the “petitioners’ village” and a military police office on the North Korean border.

But for his latest project, the director has focused his lens on a more visible social issue in China — so much more visible that he first spotted it while studying a satellite map.

“I knew I wanted to make a film about the environment, so in 2011, I spent about a year driving around China to see what was out there,” Mr. Zhao said in an interview in his studio here. “When I was in Inner Mongolia, I was looking at the map and this area was black. I couldn’t see it very clearly, because there was all this thick smog from the coal mines.”

That is how Mr. Zhao, 44, came across the subject for “Behemoth,” in which documentary combines with art film to produce a powerful testament to the human and environmental costs of coal mining and consumption in China, the world’s biggest user of coal and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal.

Set in the Wuhai area of Inner Mongolia, far from the smog-choked cities that dominate headlines, the film depicts the ravaging of the region’s famed grasslands by coal mining companies. In one scene, sheep graze in a green pasture. Nearby, trucks and industrial machines swivel and churn in gaping pits of billowing, gray coal dust. Day and night, nameless workers sift and shovel. In the iron works, they stoke fiery furnaces in sweltering heat. They come home to scour faces caked with dust, but their eyes almost always seem lined with black soot.

Since its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in September, the film has been making the rounds on the festival circuit. In a review in Variety, the critic Jay Weissberg called “Behemoth” an “impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining.”

But the movie is also a shift for the director, who has made something of a name for himself as a socially minded filmmaker. In the critically acclaimed “Petition” (2009), Mr. Zhao spent more than 12 years filming Chinese petitioners who would come to Beijing, often for years, to seek redress for wrongdoing by local officials, only to be met by harassment and sometimes detention. In 2010, Mr. Zhao made “Together,” a film commissioned by the Ministry of Health about discrimination against Chinese with H.I.V./AIDS.

Although Mr. Zhao was criticized by some at the time for cooperating with the Chinese government to make a film, he said in a recent interview that “Petition” and “Together” were ultimately made for the public good. But “Behemoth,” he said, was a “big change.”

“While before I made movies with a feeling of social responsibility, now I just make movies for myself,” he said, at a screening of “Behemoth” in Beijing this month. (Mr. Zhao said that because of early miscommunications about its content, the film would not be shown in commercial theaters in China.)

“I have my own aesthetic views and my opinions about life, but I don’t think that artistic works can change society,” he said. “They are very weak. I’ve made a lot of documentaries, but most are only available in film libraries for scholars to study. It’s disappointing.”

Call it a loss of hope, or maybe simply a desire to try something new. Whichever, “Behemoth” is an aesthetic departure from Mr. Zhao’s past works. There is neither dialogue nor voice-over. (A version of the film shown on the French-German television network Arte, which helped produce the film, featured a voice-over by Mr. Zhao.) Audiences never learn the names or stories of the individual workers featured.

Instead, Mr. Zhao relies on imagery and audio captured over a year and a half of shooting to convey the sheer physicality and scale of Inner Mongolia’s coal mines. The biggest challenge, Mr. Zhao said, was having to sneak around. He had received access to the mines through a friend of a friend, but during filming, he and a crew of two to three people had to work quickly to set up and shoot. Several times he was stopped from recording and his memory card was deleted, he said.

“It was like guerrilla filmmaking,” Mr. Zhao said. “These coal mine owners are so rich that you can’t bribe them to solve your problems. If you impact their production, they could lose millions, so they try to avoid being filmed as much as possible.”

Mr. Zhao frames the film using on-screen text adapted from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” A coal miner serves as the Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s guide, holding a mirror on his back as he leads the journey into the ashen pits of hell and Purgatory, then back up to Paradise. In the film, Paradise is the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos, China’s infamous “ghost city,” where swaths of nearly identical apartment buildings sit eerily empty. So much human sacrifice and environmental devastation have gone to create what Mr. Zhao called a “false heaven.”

“It’s not extreme like contemporary art. I have no desire to make a video of someone sleeping for nine hours,” Mr. Zhao said. “But instead of crying, I want people to be moved inside. Tears are cheap emotions. The reason I like contemporary art is because it’s cold and it doesn’t allow you to get too close to the subject.”

In one of the final scenes, the camera lingers on a coal miner lying silently on a bed, breathing heavily with the help of a respirator. In the next shot, a woman is shown holding a photograph of the man. Viewers do not know his name and they do not know his relationship to the woman. But it is clear that he has died of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, the most prevalent occupational disease in China.

“Imagination is part of it,” Mr. Zhao said. “I don’t have to introduce the background of each person specifically. All we know is that this is a group of people who’ve been tossed about on earth and in the end they didn’t get anything. Their bodies are worn out and the environment is damaged. That’s all.”

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