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 medieval tale of a journey to the underworld, Zhao Liang’s latest documentary presents a bleak vision of China’s breakneck industrialization.
“Behemoth” won rave reviews at international film festivals. But the director says a ban by Communist officials mean only a handful of people in his home country will see it.
A screening in Beijing this month was a far cry from Venice Film festival’s red carpet, where Zhao waved for photographers in September.
Instead a small audience, largely fellow filmmakers and artists, watched his chronicle of the ripping apart of China’s Inner Mongolia region in the pursuit of economic growth.
Zhao said afterwards that 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 more widely.
Zhao, 45, looked downcast, responding: “I know that it’s not possible. The Inner Mongolian government gave an order that the film could not be promoted.”
The director is part of a generation of independent documentary-makers in China who shunned the country’s state-dominated production system to shoot unflinching and gritty social portraits.
His “Crime and Punishment” was an indictment of a dysfunctional legal system, as reflected by a shambolic police station in a small town on the border with North Korea.
In “Petition,” he followed peasants battling bureaucracy over a 12-year period, and “Together” documented the shortcomings of China’s care for people with HIV/AIDS.