COLUMBIA — The monster is hungry, and it must be fed.
For low wages, millions of Chinese migrant workers risk their health and their lives toiling away in the dangerous, unregulated coal mines of Inner Mongolia. The black sedimentary rock is the energy that fuels China, the world’s largest consumer of coal.
This bleak world is the backdrop for director Zhao Liang’s documentary Behemoth, which had its North American debut at the True/False Film Fest on March 4. In Liang’s film, the biblical monster of the same name serves as an allegory to the insatiable hunger of today’s coal industry. The ruin of the environment and the workers carrying out the monster’s bidding are collateral damage.
Subject to deplorable conditions, many workers suffer from pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung or miner’s lung, a debilitating disease caused by long exposure to coal or carbon.
The toll on the environment is equally as devastating. Grey, ashen wastelands stretch on endlessly where towering mountains once stood. A legion of coal mining vehicles dot the flattened, barren landscape like rows of worker ants.
There are no interviews in Behemoth; anything that could be said is instead shown. Liang did this to avoid “plastic scenes,” producer Sylvie Blum said in the Q&A after the film. Instead, Liang crafts his narrative through stunning visuals that are beautiful and terrible in equal measure. With grandiose and imposing panoramas of the affected landscape, it’s a breathtakingly cinematic film suited for the big screen.
Liang captures coal’s battle against nature at the front lines. One scene shows sheep grazing in the foreground of a lush field, while in the distance, a vast land of grey-black stretches out endlessly before them. A long pan to the left shows the mine’s enormity, as if the barren desolation goes forever in both directions.
At their borders, the two disparate landscapes meet in an almost perfect line — the grey land sits high above, with dump trucks dispatching dirt over its edge, creating an ever-encroaching slope that devours the grass inch by inch. The nomadic family living on the land eventually moves, unable to hold on against the environmental damage.
Just as frequent as the arresting, awe-inspiring shots, there are a host of quiet, human moments, too — vignettes of the people who make both their livelihood and their ruin in the mines.
The camera lingers for long minutes as a woman soaps up a rag and scrubs soot off her face and upper body. A man laboriously washes and waters his potted plant, a small bit of green he clings to in a vast sea of sickly grey. Men, young and old, struggle to breathe in hospital beds; jars of the black fluid drawn from their lungs sit on a medical tray.
Liang uses sparse narration, fusing original poetry with lines from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a man’s account of his journey through Hell.
Liang narrates a disturbing tour through pitch-black mine tunnels, bleak hospital rooms, and the fire-and-brimstone inferno of the iron works. Each new venue is an analogy to the circles of Dante’s Hell and the human prisoners held captive within.
But Liang calls it Paradise — the fruit of all this endless labor. Dozens of identical skyscrapers line deserted streets. It is void of inhabitants, save the handful of sanitation workers scurrying to keep industry’s vacant palace clean.
In the film’s climax, drifting through the empty city, Liang says he hopes he is dreaming. But “this isn’t a dream. This is us,” he says in the film.
In the films final moments, Liang tells the audience the true identity of Behemoth. It is humanity, those in the audience included, who have done this damage to themselves and to the Earth.
“We are that monster,” he says. “The monster minions.”