Documentary filmmaker and photographer Zhao Liang "My language is imagery"

Still from Behemoth (2015) by Zhao Liang, China/France, 90 mins
Still from Behemoth (2015) by Zhao Liang, China/France, 90 mins | Institut National de l'Audiovisuel

A scene that looks painted, in shades of brown and grey, and yet its geometry is puzzling, then a sudden explosion followed by a shower of ash. Like the biblical Behemoth, machines eat their way into the earth, digging up whole landscapes, devouring the steppe, driving off the steppe-dwellers and their sheep. This scene of destruction is accompanied by the elegiac overtone throat singing of the Tuvans. Behemoth (悲兮魔兽) was world-premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2015.

“I wanted to do something on the subject of the environment, because you simply cannot ignore this problem in China. What I found most striking during my research was the huge opencast coal mines in Inner Mongolia. The visual quality of the place was what made up my mind to shoot here. Plus the backbreaking work of the people here, work on which our present-day affluence is built.” Close-ups zoom in on miners covered with coal dust that won’t wash off anymore and steelworkers wearing hardly any protection at all in the blistering heat of the steel mill. The images are staggering, and the soundtrack is almost more than one can stand. Dust and heat eat away at the workers’ lungs. And what for? For the construction of a paradise like the ghost town of Ordos, a gigantic white elephant. “I drew inspiration from a book that’s over 600 years old, in which the author succeeds in uniting opposites, heaven and hell. I had something similar in mind.” As in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the narrator is guided through the greyish-black slag heaps of purgatory to film the fiery red hell of the steel mill and, in the end, heaven under blue skies. In-between stands man, naked and unprotected in a vast landscape.  But “as consumers, each of us is part of this monster”. We can’t help wincing at the simplicity of this metaphor, then the gruesomely beautiful images carry us away.

Zhao Liang (赵亮) is one of the most exciting contemporary Chinese documentary filmmakers. Born in 1971, he studied at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts (鲁迅美术学院) in Shenyang and has been based in Beijing since the early 1990s. Since then he’s been crisscrossing the country with his camera, showing sides of China off the beaten paths of the usual tourist routes and outside its everyday urban hustle and bustle, in films, photographs and video installations. He feels his responsibility as a documentarian is to get to the bottom of things whose very existence most people don’t even suspect. He tells of marginalized groups living in our midst: young heroin addicts (Paper Airplane, 纸飞机,1997-2001), an artists’ colony broken up by force on the edge of the Old Summer Palace (Farewell to Yuanmingyuan, 告别圆明园,1995- 2006), small-scale cross-border trade between China and North Korea (Return to the Border 在江边, 2005) or a police unit in Liaoning (Crime and Punishment, 罪与法, 2007) that oversees the limitations on the powers of law enforcement – and all too often oversteps them itself. Sylvie Blum, his long-standing producer, was moved to work with Zhao by the depth of his insight into society and individuals, combined with the beauty of his images.

Zhao usually works on a single project for several years, employing other media as well to come to grips with the material, including photo and video installations exhibited in domestic and international shows.

Zhao is more than just a camera-wielding observer, he interacts with and forges personal ties to his subjects, who regard him as a cinematic authority and feel he should take responsibility, even though he’s often powerless to do anything about a situation of which he is a part. He is well aware of this ongoing balancing act: of course you have to help, he says, but you mustn’t forget that you’re here to film. One doesn’t often come across this mix of an artistic eye and a sensibility to reality, says his producer.

The invitation to the Cannes Film Festival in 20090 was Zhao’s international breakthrough:  to make Petition 上访 he accompanied a mother and daughter for twelve years who, like many petitioners, had come to the capital to file a complaint about unfair treatment at the hands of local authorities. They were living in a village constructed out of cardboard and tarpaulins, and hoping for justice.

In 2011 his film Together 在一起 was screened at the Berlinale. It’s a documentary about how people with HIV are treated during the shooting of a feature film (Gu Changwei’s A Tale of Magic) and follows the filmmaker in his search for HIV-positive individuals willing to tell their story on camera. It was the first film about HIV officially authorized for public viewing in China. In fact it was co-produced by the Chinese Ministry of Health. One can tell from the film itself, however, that too many compromises had to be made to obtain official approval.

Behemoth was China’s only entry in the competition at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. It is an allegory, documentary and film essay all in one. The very difficulty of categorizing it goes to show how much it differs from Zhao’s previous works. And yet once again it doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. “I don’t want to repeat myself. I am constantly evolving and seeking new forms of artistic expression.”