The terrible mythological vision of the Behemoth — awesome in its strength as it gorges on mountains, its sinews made of stone, bones of iron — takes on disturbing reality in a film of the same name about coal mining by the independent filmmaker and artist Zhao Liang. The camera takes us into coal mines in Inner Mongolia, iron smelting yards, homes of miners, a hospital where black lung is treated, and a ghost city. Loosely structured around the spaces of hell, purgatory, and paradise, and glossed with words drawn from Dante, the filmmaker reflects on ways of seeing the fragility and connectedness of the human body to its environment when that environment, mirroring the Behemoth, is violent and dangerous. Though perhaps it would be more to the point to say that the filmmaker grieves over his subject.
This is no ordinary documentary. The first minutes of the film do not establish a linear narrative moving forward fact by fact. Rather, they establish a vertical interplay between surfaces and depths. An open pit mine explodes. The chords of Tuvan throat singing deeply echo as rock flies into the air. A figure carries a mirror on his back, its surface reflecting the split, barren stone around him, a “portrait of the dead.” Digital manipulations fracture the screen image, in turn, into mirror-like shards.
In “hell” we closely follow the miners down into the pit and into their everyday life. Zhao casts the black inky valley that is their home against a fiery smelting plant powered by coal. At the mines, coal dust penetrates every pore; at the iron yards, glinting flecks of minerals slide over the reddened cheeks of the iron workers. Instead of the mirror on the miner’s back, in the furnace’s heat faces are covered in a mirror of sweat.
We also catch glimpses of ghosts: what the land and life was like before coal. Flocks of sheep tumble over piles of gravel. A shepherd rides his horse across grassy loess. And our own lost innocence is embodied in a perfectly clean naked body that huddles against the edge of the pit, vanishes, then reappears.
From “hell” we follow the path of the coal transport trucks into a city. In this second section, the “purgatory” at the hospital, the sound of truck exhaust intermingles with the rasping breath of the patients. Inky liquid is drained from their chests in order to ease the pressure on their struggling lungs. Our final view of purgatory is a picture of miners from Sichuan sitting outside the hospital in silent protest of government policy about the fatal black lung disease.
At the end of the film we enter into a sunshine-yellow “paradise.” It is empty except for a few people walking along perfectly swept roads. The mirror one carries on his back reflects the steel girders of the unoccupied high rises around him, and for a fleeting moment, the figure of a miner. Again we hear the chords of Tuvan singing. The Behemoth is nearly invisible in the pristine surfaces of the vacant city, yet its dark presence can be perceived, and deeply felt.
Video stills courtesy of the artist.