Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay
The Deserted Village, Oliver Goldsmith (1770)
It’s tempting to seek a kind of terrible beauty at the heart of Behemoth — the new film from Chinese documentary maker Zhao Liang that quietly, but savagely explores the impact of open cast mining in Inner Mongolia. Tempting because in looking for some beautiful order to the deep, cruel incisions we have made on the Earth, and on the lives of of those who must husband this mineral to its dubious goal, we might find some relief. But this is Old Testament documentary making and there is little relief to be found.
The film initially opens at an operatic, Wagnerian scale. Earth-shattering explosions accompanied by a low, vocal drone are redolent of Phillip Glass’s score to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi — itself an extraordinary exploration of mankind’s ambivalent relationship to nature and technology. I was also reminded of Manufactured Landscapes (2006) — Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary on the work of the photographer Edward Burtynsky — that also sought to convey the sublime terror of our interventions into the landscape.
As much as Behemoth does similarly seek to alert us to our grotesque remodelling of once beautiful landscapes, Liang’s focus is ultimately more human, intimate, quotidian. The film is a series of vignettes that chart the journey of coal from its extraction, a process that itself could be described as baroque, in the way the exotic forms of torture are sometimes described as such. From here we move to the volcanic furnace — the red heat almost burns through the screen— that converts the energy into something of industrial value and then onto it’s final purpose as building materials.
But through each chapter of the film the real focus is on the men (and the women who suffer by proxy). These are men that far from working at the frontier of human progress are in fact the foot-soldiers of mankind at his most egregious, forced to dig this relentless fire-pit, a portal to the belly of the eponymous behemoth that will certainly consume them and may ultimately consume us all.
Throughout the film these men say nothing. They don’t need to. As much as it’s possible (and clearly it’s nigh on impossible) we endure their working day in silence, including, crucially, their futile attempts to clean the carcinogenic residue from the folds in their necks or to pick the flecks of pig iron from their calloused hands. Something about the white noise of industrial scale extraction set against people going about their daily lives — silent but for the sound of dinner plates being scraped clean or towels being squeezed of their excess before being hung on a line — was deeply upsetting. Mundane tasks that we all perform, of course, but in our case they are usually done with an expectation that something more fulfilling is on the horizon. Not so the case here.
These observations are interspersed with the occasional image of another man — naked, embryonic, huddled in a foetal position, like an alien dropped into this moonscape as a warning from the future. Unlike other films that explore our impact on the planet, the voiceover that accompanies his presence is not the typical call to action, guilt-tripping exhortations to march, recycle or to stage another benefit concert. It merely provides simple descriptions of the brutal impact on the planet and on human health, a reminder of what has been sacrificed in lieu of progress — elegiac, poetic, sparse and hugely powerful for it (they include the Oliver Goldsmith quote above). Even the scene of an environmental protest taking place outside some regional government building is conducted in silence.
The film is a stark reminder of industrial processes that we in the west have largely outsourced to rapidly industrialising countries, particularly China, and how just beneath our consumption patterns runs a river of human misery and planetary destruction. The final motif is that of a man — bronchial, wheezing through the pneumoconiosis lung disease that we are told afflicts millions in this region — carrying a large mirror on his back. It’s not clear why he is carrying the mirror — reflecting the viewer perhaps, or simply a crude attempt at a panorama to show us yet more of this uniformly shattered landscape.
The film closes with the man carrying his mirror through a forest of empty tower blocks, the ultimate, supremely pointless destination of all that effort. This is a ‘ghost city’ — one of many lying idle and vacant throughout China — the set for a dystopian movie (except this is all too real) about what happens when developers get greedy and property speculation is allowed to overheat. It’s like a satire on the futility of the human condition. The final effect is nothing short of a wretched, exhausted, resignation at the dark underbelly of globalisation and what little we appear to be able to do to correct these injustices.