No show in China for documentary

Chinese film-maker Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (above) was inspired by Dante’s Inferno.
Chinese film-maker Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (above) was inspired by Dante’s Inferno. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, YOUTUBE
Chinese film-maker Zhao Liang’s (above) Behemoth was inspired by Dante’s Inferno.
Chinese film-maker Zhao Liang’s (above) Behemoth was inspired by Dante’s Inferno.

Film on industrialisation in Inner Mongolia has won rave reviews but the government has ordered that the film not be promoted

BEIJING • It is a vision of hell on earth: green hills blasted into black heaps, and workers toiling under snarling machinery, dodging hot red sparks and rivers of molten metal.

Inspired by Dante's Inferno, a mediaeval tale of a journey to the underworld, Zhao Liang's latest documentary presents a bleak vision of China's industrialisation at breakneck speed. Behemoth won rave reviews at international film festivals. But the director said that a ban by Communist officials means that only a handful of people in his home country will see it.

A screening in Beijing this month was a far cry from the Venice Film Festival's red carpet, where Zhao waved for photographers last September.

Instead, a small audience, largely film-makers and artists, watched his chronicle of the ripping apart of China's Inner Mongolia in the pursuit of economic growth.

Zhao, 45, said the film's setting "offered the kind of visual spectacle I was looking for. The environment was just too shocking".

The area is dominated by pitch black - open-cast mines gouged into hillsides and coal dust ingrained in miners' faces - and blood red: plumes of flame and pools of liquid metal at a steel plant.

Quotes from the 14th-century Italian poet are read over hellish images: A crawling snake and coal trucks stretching serpent-like to the horizon.

After rapturous applause, an audience member asked whether the film would be screened widely. Zhao responded: "I know that it's not possible. The Inner Mongolian government gave an order that the film could not be promoted."

He is part of a generation of independent documentary-makers in China who shun the state- dominated production system to shoot unflinching social portraits.

His Crime And Punishment (2007) was an indictment of a dysfunctional legal system, as reflected at a shambolic police station in a small town on the border with North Korea.

In Petition (2009), he followed peasants battling bureaucracy over a 12-year period, and Together (2010) documented the short- comings of China's care for people with HIV or Aids.

The Beijing screening - one of just three so far in China - was held at a film school run by art critic Li Xianting, sometimes known as the godfather of the country's independent cinema.

Li notes the similarities between Zhao's films and the critiques of industrialisation made by European artists in the 19th century.

"This film is a reflection of crazed urbanisation, GDP growth...whose cost is in the lives of so many at the bottom of society," he told the audience.

He funds film-makers and, for years, hosted an annual independent documentary festival, but under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has tightened already strict regulations on culture.

The police cancelled the event in 2014 and called it off again last year, Li said.

Independent documentaries can circulate only in the country through pirated DVDs and private screenings.

Zhao said independent films offered one of the few honest lenses on Chinese society.

"Most media in China are engaged in covering up the facts, in lying. Many documentaries are about exposing lies and letting people see the truth," he said.

Zhao relied on French and Italian funding and took nearly two years to make Behemoth, a process he called "guerilla film-making", involving regular run-ins with the authorities.

The human costs of natural resource extraction is shown through the plight of miners who have developed black lung disease through years of exposure to coal dust. As many as six million people are estimated to be suffering from the incurable illness in China.

Zhao said: "Ideally, the film would be able to be screened in China, for Chinese people."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2016, with the headline 'No show in China for documentary'. Print Edition | Subscribe