Zhao Liang's Behemoth blurs the lines between video art and documentary, visually exploring multiple open-pit coal mines in the sparse hinterlands of China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The film, loosely inspired by Dante's Inferno, forgoes the spoken word completely. It stylistically melds poetry and performance art to portray the lives of various coal miners and iron smelters as they struggle to produce raw material fast enough for China's ever-growing economy. The largely plotless film draws one in through the sheer juxtaposition of its monstrous, inhuman-sized landscapes and the intimate close-ups of miners' soot-covered faces. Though banned from being screened inside China, the film was shown to a packed house in an underground screening room on the outskirts of Beijing this past February. The next day, we sat down in Zhao's Beijing art studio, where the filmmaker was as wry in his humor as he was cynical, discussing everything from his views on censorship to the relationship between art and activism.
Behemoth is a very unconventional documentary.
It's closer to art than film. It makes me feel more comfortable to call it that.
What was the impetus for the project?
It took me over three years to prepare for this film. At first it was a lot of location scouting. I wandered around many places in China, and I had two themes in mind. One was environmental, and the other was about pneumatosis [black lung disease].
How did you end up in Inner Mongolia?
Well, there are actually more than a few large coal mines in the south [of China], but I was more moved by the ones that I saw in Inner Mongolia. It's hard to imagine. The coal mines in Inner Mongolia look like they're from outer space. It's such a visual stimulation. I think many Chinese people don't have the opportunity to see these things. That's where I found all the elements that I wanted for the film. Although the pollution in the Yangtze River is rather serious, it's more difficult to present it through visuals. You can only really rely on data and interviews [to communicate that], but I don't do films in that fashion.
You chose your characters to be silent throughout the whole film and it turned out to be very powerful. Why this decision on your part?
At the beginning of the production I was using a more conventional documentary style, but I'm also a video artist. Video art is very free, unlike documentary, which tends to have a linear logic. You shoot a scene and, if you like it, you can shoot for as long as you want. No one will say that you're wrong even if you turn your camera sideways. So when I started shooting the raw materials, I shot freely as if making video art. During the production, I exhibited some of the footage at the Shanghai Biennial and at a gallery in Beijing. A lot of it was appearing as installation art. Then, while I was editing the film, I realized I had a lot of faces and a lot of still shots—and that if I had used all these materials to make a conventional documentary, it would have been a pity. So I decided to add more elements of modern art to my documentary.
Right, talk is cheap. Especially for visual arts.
Not exactly, it's just the language of silence contains a large power because these characters are already carrying such powerful stories. In Petition, the characters are constantly talking. I don't want my work to repeat this model because that wouldn't have been fun. Because I'm a person who hates repeating the past.
It's interesting that every single one of your documentaries is from a personal perspective and spectators can feel that you're part of it. As a filmmaker, how do you view your relationship to your subjects?
I don't purposefully avoid my own existence in the films because I feel that the act of shooting is my interaction with another individual. I often choose to make myself one of the main characters. Also, I like to put myself in my films. [Laughs] I'm in Petition, Paper Airplanes, Crime and Punishment, but maybe the audience isn't familiar enough with me to actually recognize me. Every individual will die eventually, but his works won't die. I want to live on through my works, so I guess this is my small way to achieve immortality.
As far as I know, Behemoth's showing at the small venue we were at last night is only the film's second screening in China. Do you think it will be shown nationwide?
It's not possible anymore. After the announcement that the film was selected to compete at the Venice International Film Festival, within three days all information about the film was wiped off the Chinese Internet. Also, none of the Chinese reporters were allowed to mention anything relevant about the film. There were over 100 Chinese reporters at the festival, and none interviewed me.
So, after your government's problems with Petition and Behemoth, do you think that censorship has created roadblocks in your creative process?
I'm doing all right these days. I follow my heart. It takes me at least a few years to make one film, so I would be pretty satisfied if I made 10 more films in my life, which is why I don't want to waste any of my time. You see, this film cannot be publicly screened [in China], but when I see my friends enjoying it, I feel pretty good. After all, if this film had to follow the censorship it wouldn't have been meaningful. You have seen my film Together [made in co-operation with the state government]? How horrible was that? I don't want to do that again.
Five years ago, during an interview, you mentioned that as long as Chinese independent documentary directors can make a little money and keep on living and making films that can be seen in public, things won't be a problem. But now a lot of independent film festivals have been shut down and there are fewer distribution opportunities. Have your feelings changed since then?
There are very few distribution and screening channels for domestic and independent documentaries now. After the cancellation of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, a lot of the films only get viewed by the juries [in private] and have no chance to be seen by the masses. Most documentaries carry messages, so without the possibility of reaching the masses, their function is diminished. A film that only gets viewed by a few people in the industry is like a body without a soul.
You mentioned in a recent New York Times interview that you don't expect art to change society, and yet social issues are at the heart of all your films.
When I first started making documentaries, I was compelled by social responsibility, but now I have changed my mind. After all, I have realized that my films have made very little difference in terms of societal improvement. And also, with the understanding that I have nowadays, I see that the society cannot be changed by a few top professionals. A change in the society needs more than just a moment. Changing society through artworks would take hundreds of years. Therefore, it's impossible for art to have real meaning and in that aspect I'm a disappointed middle-aged man. Now all the works I do are for myself, even though there's a lot of social issues involved in my films. I wouldn't deny it, as I no longer see my work as a catalyst for creating social benefit. The reality is dark. If you want to change the world, it's better to study politics and enter a powerful corporation or organization. That would be more direct way to change society.
There are many voices from China's high government that are saying they want to promote good art in the country, but then so much of the good art being made can't be shown. As an artist, what's your take on this paradox?
In order to improve, the government has to change its standard for judging good art from bad. Because what we see as good art isn't the same as what they see right now. What documentaries do is to break lies and to tell the truth. Is the government willing to face the truth? If they don't change how they view art, there's never going to be a harmony between them wanting good art and having good art reach the masses.
Translation by Yasi Xu and Xuanzi Zhang