The Act of Mining – Two Documentaries from New Directors/New Films

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Eldorado XXI
Directed By Salomé Lamas
2016 Portugal/France
Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara with English subtitles

Behemoth / Beixi moshuo
Directed By Zhao Liang
2015 China/France
Mandarin with English subtitles

Two documentaries from this year’s New Directors/New Films depict the evils released on earth when men plunder the underground.

Salomé Lamas’s Eldorado XXI opens on a frozen landscape where a mining town of aluminum sheds emerges. New Yorker readers will recall the scene from William Finnegan’s Letter from Peru, “Tears of the Sun: The gold rush at the top of the world”:

“The mines at La Rinconada, a bitter-cold, mercury-contaminated pueblo clinging to the glaciered mountainside, are ‘artisanal’: small, unregulated, and grossly unsafe.”

Perhaps a third of Lamas’s film consists of a single shot from a stationary camera, eyeing hundreds of miners descending into and ascending out of this portal to hell.

Other episodes depict a circle of pallaqueras (women who scavenge bits of gold from the nearly depleted mine), chewing coca leaves and smoking cigarettes (“we’re going to die anyway”) as they discuss the upcoming presidential election; a night-time scene of profoundly drunken men navigating the town’s alleyways; and miners’ prayers to the mountain deities before entering the mine.

Before arriving at ND/NF, Eldorado XXI was screened (in IMAX format) by the Berlinale Forum, which also chose Lamas’s scarily fascinating Terra de ninguém for its 2013 edition (read my post).

Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (Beixi moshuo) brilliantly juxtaposes a rumination on Dante’s Divine Comedy with the sights and sounds of destruction of Inner Mongolian grasslands by Chinese coal mining companies.

Completely blacked out by China’s official media outlets, Beixi moshuo has nevertheless gained attention via international festivals:

“The transformation of paradise into purgatory, with hell firmly in sight, gets imposing visual treatment in Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang’s Behemoth. This image-based hybrid of documentary and poetic allegory is a plaintive account of the rape of the earth by coal mining companies in the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and of the dehumanizing existence of local and Chinese migrant workers.” – Hollywood Reporter

“Drawing as much on music and long-form poetry as cinema, Behemoth works like a symphony as it takes us from the surviving pastoral enclaves of rural Mongolia to the hellish noise, dust and smoke of the mines, factories and iron foundries. But it also has a more incisive political message for audiences in the developed world, illustrating as it does the environmental and human cost of the Made-in-China economic miracle that we all benefit from.” – Screen Daily

“Maverick indie helmer Zhao Liang continues his muckraking tour of China’s social and environmental woes with the stunningly lensed, cumulatively moving “Behemoth.” Acting as a modern-day Dante on a tour through Inner Mongolia’s coal mines and iron works, Zhao (“Together,” “Petition”) eschews narrative for an impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage, emphasizing the contrasts between rapidly dwindling green pastures and dead landscapes disemboweled by toxic mining. The human toll is also here in the final sections, making starkly clear the price impoverished workers pay for back-breaking labor. Zhao’s quiet yet powerful indignation will play to the arthouse crowd, and his striking visuals should ensure that “Behemoth” receives berths beyond environmental fests.” – Variety

Opening to viscerally shocking explosions against a soundscape of Mongolian throat-singing, Beixi moshuo depicts the literal elevation of Hell onto a rapidly disappearing verdant plain of Mongolian horsemen and their grazing sheep, devastating an ancient way of life and poisoning Chinese workers for the end result of a ghost city.

Mining is murder, and we are all accomplices.

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