Maybe there are documentaries about the ecological consequences of digging up non-renewable energy sources akin to Josh Fox’s “Gasland” to emerge from the subterranean American documentary pipeline, but Chinese directors are capturing some of the worst predations of industrial growth in their country. In Zhao Liang’s exemplary, two-years-in-the-shooting essay “Behemoth” (Bei xi mo shou), a lyrical, seemingly gentle journey begins with the explosion of a Mongolian mine, follows the fire and ash of the coal and iron industries and wends its way toward a gleaming ghost city on the outskirts of Beijing—a city to be populated (perhaps), ready for enforced relocation and yet another “economic miracle.” Zhao’s images are freighted with beauty as well as the weight of ravaging, of man and landscape: the cumulative effect is harshly political, rising to the spoiled grandeur of the earth surfaces of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.
A gifted cinematographer, he draws inspiration and narration from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and his eloquent collection of images of the hells he traverses again and again, both the rapturous and the journalistically revelatory, speak for themselves. “Just like after the opening of Pandora’s box, the devil grows recklessly,” Zhao has observed. “It is the totality of humankind’s desire and greed. Each and every one of us is a part of the devil. All of us are its accomplices. We all have seen the catastrophic consequences of fuel politics. As some of us are enjoying a more and more luxurious lifestyle, shouldn’t we reflect on that way of life? We all are consumers of natural resources, so we are all accomplices of that evil that’s hurting the environment. All of us are part of the monster.” 88m. (Ray Pride)
“Behemoth” opens Friday, March 10 at Facets.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.