Beasts of sin: Agony and despair in the pursuit of ‘development’

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Yap Li Yan reviews the film Behemoth, which silently depicts the harrowing impact of coal mining and steel refining in China on migrant workers and the environment.

How do you convey a feeling of despair without words?

A camera is dead, unable to feel for dying coal mine workers. Cameras do not weep at the thought of a paradise lost: a hill once filled with lush greenery and wildlife now replaced with ridged grey hills shrouded by air unfit for breathing.

In documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang’s hands, the camera captures the beauty of Nature juxtaposed against the agony of Mongolian migrant workers and the environment in Sichuan, China bled dry for profit.

The Earth bleeds black, the colour of coal. The film opens with a slowed footage of an explosion shooting powdered coal in every direction and covering every inch of the mine and workers in a permanent layer of black soot. Black slurry spatters on the workers’ face as they drill in the mines. I could not help but think of the slasher film Psycho: replace the knife with loud drills and the murdered woman with the Earth.

Such are the horrors portrayed in Behemoth. Zhao Liang leads the audience through Dante’s Inferno as he depicts these Chinese coal mines and steel mills like levels of hell, where blood is the currency of the unseen profiteers. The workers bleed red, but not of blood. It is the duller red of the RMB100 notes in their pockets – their lives bartered for money.

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Behemoth is a monster of a documentary. For film lovers, it is a perfect mix of cinéma vérité  influences, a compelling colour palette, and artistic cinematography.

The allegory of Dante’s Inferno has the audience wonder about the many sins human beings commit towards the earth and one another, whether by pleading ignorance to their suffering or by profiting from it. Anywhere between one million and six million people in China have contracted pneumoconiosis from the inhalation of fine particles such as coal dust or silica.

Behemoth left me wondering about these profiteers and their ‘development’ – to what end? This question was explored in a recent film discussion organised by Aliran in collaboration with environmental group Kuasa.

The film ends with a pensive scene of a man holding a mirror walking through a ghost town in Erdos, Inner Mongolia.

Zhao Liang explains that the scene represents Paradiso in Divine Comedy, an apt name for what seems like a cruel joke. In Dante’s Inferno, the three beasts of sin represent self-indulgence, malice, and greed. As million- and billion-dollar development projects continue to benefit the rich and keep the poor poorer, it seems that these beasts flourish everywhere.

In the man’s mirror, paradise in Erdos is a reflection of short-sighted planning coupled with oppression and indifference to the plight of the working-class and migrant workers. Let’s hope we don’t find Malaysia in this reflection and we don’t end up with ghost towns like the one in Erdos.

Yap Li Yan is about to graduate in communication studies with a minor in film studies. She is currently doing an internship with Aliran.

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