In different ways, several of the Chinese films at the Melbourne International Film Festival—What’s in the Darkness, Tharlo, and Old Stone—wrestle with how an individual makes their way in a system that is incompetent or oppressive or both. All include policemen who can’t do their jobs. All feature people who are driven to do the wrong thing, and are punished by death—though, significantly, never at the hands of the state. Old Stone is perhaps the bleakest politically, in its suggestion that the biggest mistake a person can make is to try to do the right thing.
Behemoth, a visually stunning and downright horrifying documentary by dissident filmmaker Zhao Liang, is much more upfront in its criticism of the Chinese government—specifically its treatment of migrant workers in the impossibly vast mines and iron works of Inner Mongolia. It is no surprise to learn that the film wasn’t able to get a wide release in China, and reporting on it was banned, or that the small crew had to resort to guerilla tactics to get many of their shots.
But Zhao’s concerns are much broader than anything the Chinese government is or isn’t doing, and—unlike the other films—it’s never possible for an Australian viewer to treat it as an artefact from some other world, some other system. Because Behemoth is a quietly angry indictment of our collective treatment of the Earth. As Zhao’s spare, sparse commentary puts it: we are the monster.
The film takes its name from the beast in the Book of Job, and structurally and narratively takes its cue from Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Inner Mongolia’s hellish ironworks as ‘Inferno’, the grey, barren minescapes and miner-filled hospitals as ‘Purgatorio’, and the blue sky of the never-used ghost city of Ordos as ‘Paradiso’.
As much poetry as documentary, the cinematography more than matches the grand metaphors: entire mountains being dismantled, truck by monster truck, carried off to be turned into products and cities, or spoil dumped from on high onto grasslands literally disappearing before our eyes, and those of the sheep herders.
At times the screen can barely contain the images—on the big screen, it can take a moment to register that something isn’t quite right, that the lines don’t add up, before you realise that the whole has fractured, slipped. A man climbs a desolate mountain carrying a giant mirror on his back, reflecting the sky. Another holds a pot plant while standing on the edge of devastation. A third struggles to breathe in a hospital, a tube pumping gunk from his chest.
Outside a provincial government office, sick workers and their families hold their signs—and we, as much as the government, feel implicated, complacent. This is what our world is created from. Environmental destruction. The pain of others. Folk songs and throat singing.
The body is never far away in Behemoth, literally and metaphorically. Some of the most moving images are of prematurely-aged couples coming home from the night shift covered in soot and methodically scrubbing themselves down. It takes a long time to be clean.
A quieter, starker, and more humane Koyaanisqatsi, Behemoth left me shocked, open.
What do we do?