Behemoth: A movie on the effects of rapid development

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The Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Inner Mongolia

Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth provides a ring-side seat to the effects of rapid development, commerce, and pollution in this autonomous region of China.

Shot over two years across China’s Inner Mongolia, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth provides a ring-side seat (or perhaps a helicopter-shot suspended over the operating table) to bear silent witness to the effects of rapid development, excavation, extraction, commerce, and pollution on the planet.

The film lingers, often wordlessly, on images of violent destruction and pillage; the central metaphor here is the titular Behemoth, a devourer of mountains, “an enormous evil energy,” according to the director’s statement. A line of trucks and diggers become “the monster’s playthings;” tunnels and tubes and trolley-tracks slowly siphon away the very core of the earth, feeding its ceaseless hunger.

Yet rather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. (Appropriately, when humans are shown in the film, their affect is a quiet, sad boredom, not fear or terror.)

The setting becomes the real focal point: this is a story of a primal and seemingly eternal landscape, charted ages ago by the film’s other literary inspiration: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Hell is seen in the inferno of molten iron and smoldering slag; Purgatory in the obscuring, ever-present gray construction dust; and even Paradise is found empty and abandoned in the bleak ghost city of Ordos, built to house over one-million people but never inhabited.

These disturbed landscapes represent the other side of the coin (or perhaps of the planet) of our global economic reality; for every manufacturing job “lost to China,” there is another pit mine, a slag heap, or a case of black lung in the name of modernization and progress.

Yet despite what these locations represent—a fallen status, neither classic nor modern, neither natural nor civilized—Zhao spies the beauty in the ruin. Like the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, (who also documents the environmental destruction wrought by China’s long march) each shot is perfectly composed, delicately balanced, and artfully framed. Similarly, the pacing establishes the proper mood and mindset: slow, thoughtful, meditative, without the rush to interpretation or judgment.

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(Courtesy Grasshopper Film)
Viewers familiar with Zhao’s previous films will recognize the director’s remarkable ability to focus on the unwatchable: in Petition (2009), he traces the slow, dangerous, and often brutal paths of the thousands of Chinese citizens who flock to the nation’s capital to file grievances against corrupt local actions: not pretty, but certainly real and important; his previous documentary film, Crime and Punishment (2007) features surprisingly similar scenes of bureaucratic cruelty along the Chinese border with North Korea. More recently, his most official film, Together (2010, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Health) illuminated the stories of HIV patients, a hidden suffering that many in the country would prefer to ignore.

A common theme emerges: where others would cut or turn away, Zhao’s camera lingers, staring long enough for our uncomfortable minds to move past fear and disgust, through fascination and prurience, to finally probe and reflect the all-too-human meaning of the violence and sorrow that we see; he is a master at cultivating unblinking empathy. In Behemoth, we see this master at the top of his game.

The result is an impressive film worthy of repeated viewings on a true large screen, which may be difficult given the limited release schedule. Fortunately, so haunting and poetic are Zhao’s images that once seen, they are likely to lodge deep in the psyche of the viewer, to be later excavated and re-examined in dreams.

Behemoth is screening at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts February 18th at 7 p.m. and February 19, 2 p.m. Future U.S. screenings can be viewed here.

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“GLOBAL-RURAL. The Global Countryside: Rural Change and Development in Globalization”, research project

“GLOBAL-RURAL aims to advance our understanding of the workings and impact of globalization in rural regions through the development and application of new conceptual and methodological approaches. Globalization has a pervasive influence in transforming rural economies and societies, with implications for the major societal challenges of environmental change and resource security. However, in comparison to studies of the global city, relatively little research has focused on the ‘global countryside’, and existing research lacks integration. GLOBAL-RURAL will develop an integrated perspective by drawing on relational analysis (and particularly the approaches of ‘assemblage theory’ and ‘countertopography’) to focus on the actual mechanics by which rural localities are ‘re-made’ through engagement with globalization processes, examining the mediating effect of national and regional context and the opportunity for local interventions. The research will be organized through five work packages. WP1 will develop the methodological application of assemblage theory to analysing the global countryside, informed by case studies in 6 countries. WP2 will combine GIS analysis of quantitative and qualitative data to produce new narratives and visualisations of globalization processes, impacts and responses. WP3 will focus on mundane, ‘everyday globalization’ in a Welsh small town, using a countertopographic methodology. WP4 will apply the assemblage methodology developed in WP1 to analysing the differential global engagement of rural localities in Brazil, China and Tanzania. WP5 will apply the methodology to examine conflicts around renewable energy schemes, mining and water projects and industrial agriculture in rural areas, and the implications for strategies to address global challenges. A sixth work package, WP6, will identify the policy applications of the research, and disseminate research findings to academic and non-academic users.”

Government and Community Reaction to Boomtown Growth theory

1) Enthusiasm as officials and residents concentrate on the positive economic impacts of job growth and retail spending that are espoused by energy industry spokespeople, while the possible negative impacts are either unknown or are dismissed as unlikely in their specific area; 2) Uncertainty, as the town starts to change as new workers arrive in
noticeable numbers. It is realized that some negative impacts have arrived along with the positive benefits, and that these negative impacts will likely grow. Officials begin to perform preliminary research; however, there are few resources or experienced staff to draw upon, while industry and state government claims there is nothing that can be done. Divisions emerge within the community as to whether the growth is detrimental or beneficial; 3) Near Panic, as the industrial activity and associated impacts grow much quicker than anticipated and the community character changes dramatically in the eyes of longer-term residents who become confused and angry at local officials and each other. Government services are overwhelmed and quality of services declines while officials realize that any increase in revenues will not offset the expenditures in the near future or at all. Government officials find that they are ill-equipped, unprepared or do not have jurisdiction to make the necessary policy decisions while longer term residents feel new
government polices are an affront to the community’s historic way of life; and 4) Adaptation, as the core problems are eventually identified and planning/mitigation strategies are developed. Residents become solidified in their beliefs; however, they begin to accept the reality of the situation at hand. Residents and officials feel a sense of progress.

Freudenburg, W. 1981 “Women and Men in an Energy Boomtown: Adjustment, Alienation, Adaptation” Rural Sciology 46:2:220-244

 

Poverty in Appalachia coal mining region

Appalachia (/ˌæpəˈlætʃə/ or /ˈæpəˈleɪtʃə/) is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.[1] While the Appalachian Mountains stretch from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama, the cultural region of Appalachia typically refers only to the central and southern portions of the range. As of the 2010 census, the region was home to approximately 25 million people, containing the major cities of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Knoxville, Tennessee; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; and Asheville, North Carolina.

Since its recognition as a distinctive region in the late 19th century, Appalachia has been a source of enduring myths and distortions regarding the isolation, temperament, and behavior of its inhabitants. Early 20th century writers often engaged in yellow journalism focused on sensationalistic aspects of the region’s culture, such as moonshining and clan feuding, and often portrayed the region’s inhabitants as uneducated and prone to impulsive acts of violence. Sociological studies in the 1960s and 1970s helped to re-examine and dispel these stereotypes.

While endowed with abundant natural resources, Appalachia has long struggled and been associated with poverty. In the early 20th century, large-scale logging and coal mining firms brought wage-paying jobs and modern amenities to Appalachia, but by the 1960s the region had failed to capitalize on any long-term benefits from these two industries. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government sought to alleviate poverty in the Appalachian region with a series of New Deal initiatives, such as the construction of dams to provide cheap electricity and the implementation of better farming practices. On March 9, 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission was created to further alleviate poverty in the region, mainly by diversifying the region’s economy and helping to provide better health care and educational opportunities to the region’s inhabitants. By 1990, Appalachia had largely joined the economic mainstream, but still lagged behind the rest of the nation in most economic indicators.