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.
(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.
In this revealing study of a white working class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., Howell shows us that there is more than one kind of blue collar worker in America today. Hard Living on Clay Street is about two very different blue collar families, the Shackelfords and the Mosebys. They are fiercely independent southern migrants, preoccupied with the problems of day-to-day living, drinking heavily, and often involved in unstable family relationships. Howell moved to Clay Street for a year with his wife and son and became deeply involved with the people, recording their story. As readers, we too become participants in the life of Clay Street, and not just observers, learning what “living on Clay Street” is all about.
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
Great example of how to engage with the target group of your study by sporadic conversations. The original source is an article on Trump victory and the reality of rural areas in US. In it, the political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Kathy Cramer speakes about his last book The Politics of Resentment, where she traces the rise of conservative Governor Scott Walker and the political evolution of Wisconsin. What Cramer says she found is that a strong sense of rural identity in the communities she visited has become a key driver of political motivation in Wisconsin. And over time, that sense of rural identity has come to be largely defined as an us vs. them mentality, with the them being people who live in cities.
Here I paste the most relevant parts regarding the methodology applied:
…what I did was to sample a broad array of communities in Wisconsin. And I asked people who lived there, “Where in this community do people go to hang out with one another?”
What’s important to understand is that these were not one-on-one interviews, these were not focus groups of people I assembled. These were groups of people who, for the most part, meet with each other every day, and they’ve been doing so for years. So I was inviting myself into their existing relationships in the places they already meet. I think that’s part of the reason why I was able to get the local texture. It wasn’t like trying to invite them on to the university campus and then trying to glean what I could out of them. Obviously the conversation changed a bit because I was there and asking questions. But these were groups of folks who were really used to talking with one another about politics.
This group was all men, older, some on their way to work and some retirees—so kind of the Trump demographic. I said to them, “What do you hope that Trump changes? Like, five years from now, what differences do you expect to see?” And initially their response was well, nothing. Nothing that presidents do ever affects us here in this place.
What is Qualitative Interviewing? is an accessible and comprehensive ‘what is’ and ‘how to’ methods book. It is distinctive in emphasising the importance of good practice in understanding and undertaking qualitative interviews within the framework of a clear philosophical position. Rosalind Edwards and Janet Holland provide clear and succinct explanations of a range of philosophies and theories of how to know about the social world, and a thorough discussion of how to go about researching it using interviews. A series of short chapters explain and illustrate a range of interview types and practices. Drawing on their own and colleagues’ experiences Holland and Edwards provide real research examples as informative illustrations of qualitative interviewing in practice, and the use of a range of creative interview tools. They discuss the use of new technologies as well as tackling enduring issues around asking and listening and power dynamics in research. Written in a clear and accessible style the book concludes with a useful annotated bibliography of key texts and journals in the field. What is Qualitative Interviewing? provides a vital resource for both new and experienced social science researchers across a range of disciplines.