Competing in the 2015 Stockholm International Film Festival’s Documentary section, Behemoth is a visually striking documentary about the negative effects that coal mining in rural Mongolia have on the environment, and the lives and health of the coal miners. Although the film strives to connect the dots between the causation of air pollution in big cities in China like Beijing that is in part due to unchecked industrial development, such as coal mining and the running of steelworks, it is also a general warning of global environmental degradation and its consequences on humanity.
In place of the usual documentary narrative format (some form of narration and interview segments), viewers are invited to experience the film in a more visceral manner, reflecting director Zhao Liang’s own artistic view on the issues. Behemoth is told in the loose framework of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, through images that are meant to provoke feelings of indignation and invoke actions of social justice.
There is little to no written or verbal information offered. Instead, the documentary delivers a seamless flow of man vs nature footage: the Mongolian steppes being swallowed by dirt and brown earth that are dug up from the mines and dumped in the nearby countryside, and long takes of the everyday routines and back-breaking work of the coal miners. Close-ups of their soot-covered, gritty faces and calloused hands are also employed to tell of their bitter toil at the mines, conjuring up the atmosphere of being in hell. The opening shot of a multi-layered mine and the subsequent elevator ride down into its infernal belly reminds the audience of the seven levels of Mount Purgatory and the descend into hell. Because the film offers such an up close and personal take on the issue, with stark landscape shots as background, the images make a strong impression.
Monologues (in Mandarin) about the director’s feelings and thoughts on the situation, composed in the stylistic prose of The Divine Comedy and read with solemn gravitas, punctuate the otherwise dialogue-free montage of footage. Towards the end, we are shown what is being referred to as Paradise — huge, newly built, upscale housing complexes that exist as ghost cities as they lay vacant, waiting for new inhabitants while the mine workers die of pneumoconiosis, the respiratory disease developed from years of working in coal mines without adequate protection. The workers who do not and have not succumbed remain impoverished.
Before the end credits rolled, brief factoids about the ramifications of accelerated and unregulated coal mining in the last decade flashed on the screen. At the Face2Face screening, Director Zhao shed more light on the film’s subject: the respiratory disease takes 8-10 years to develop to end stages, which explains why the effects are only now becoming known, hence the current importance of raising awareness of the situation. Sources for data on the illness are hard to come by, but the estimates of affected workers as well as those living in the industrial towns are believed to be around 6 million people. This is a staggering number that almost defies belief — it’s more than the population of Denmark, for example. Migrant workers from all over China and Mongolia work in these privatized mines, which are not subject to monitoring, and therefore provide less safety measures and medical compensation to the workers. Overwhelming numbers of those workers are poor migrants who have no clout and no avenues to demand better working conditions or restitution. Although they stage peaceful demonstrations, they are not heard.
Director Zhao explained that all the footage was shot on only 2 occasions. Despite being accompanied by security officers employed at the mines, no official permission was requested from relevant authorities for the filming of the documentary. As such, the film crew worked in small teams, often with help from inside collaborators, enabling intimate access to the sites and the daily grind of the workers.
There is little denying that Behemoth makes a serious addition to the existing collection of climate change and green films, and its director deserve praise and support for making it. The film won the Green Drop Award on environmental sustainability at the Venice Film Festival this year, and one hopes that it will spur on continued dialogue and debate on the subject.
I do wonder though, with so much crucial information surrounding the issues, if the film would not have benefited from a more traditional form of storytelling. It was clear from the post screening audience Q&A and lengthy expositions from Director Zhao that more information needed to be imparted. The imagery of human servitude in the bowels of the behemoth struck a nerve with many viewers, and they wanted to know details — of the disease, of the back story to the privatization of mines, of the workers unions and rights as well as their struggle and progress with this issue, just to name a few.
Perhaps the telling of this tragic story, of a marginalized group left behind in a new world that they had helped to build, deserved a more in-depth and comprehensive analysis which has been sacrificed in lieu of the artistic liberty taken by the director? The heavy allegories: monologues accompanied by shots of a naked, sleeping man in various locations, different scenes of a man carrying a plant or a mirror as he walked through the barren landscapes, all pay homage to classic masterpieces, but it feels a bit ironic (and maybe even a bit indulgent) that what is essentially a call to arms is ultimately conveyed more as an artistic contemplation in the voice of one person.