A graduate of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts and the Beijing Film Academy, the 44-year-old Zhao Liang has been making independent documentaries using various video formats since the mid-1990s. His filmography includes movies about drug-addicted punks (Paper Airplane, 01), the Chinese military police at the North Korean border (Crime and Punishment, 07), petitioners that travel across the country to Beijing’s Court of Complaints (Petition, 09), and people afflicted with HIV and AIDS (Together, 10, his one and only film financed by the Chinese government and approved for public screening in the country). After a five-year hiatus, Zhao is back with Behemoth, a poetic documentary chronicling miners and steel workers who, as stated in the film’s closing credits, “face the hardship of life with extraordinary courage.” A competition selection of the 72th Venice Film Festival, Behemoth will screen at New Directors/New Films on March 17 and 18.

It is sometimes said that work makes man noble. Yet after immersing himself into present-day China’s coal mines and steel mills, Zhao came to the same conclusion as philosopher Simone Weil and bourgeois saint Irene Girard from Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51: workers are little more than doomed convicts on the assembly line. Zhao means this quite literally, as Behemoth allegorizes the condition of workers under Chinese socialism by adapting Dante’s vision of a journey across Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. But by taking us down into the mines where coal is extracted, then “into the hidden abode of production” where coal is burnt to smelt metals and forge steel, and finally into a deserted Paradise City full of newly constructed apartment complexes built with these materials, Behemoth realizes Marx’s dream of documenting the raw-matter-to-finished-product cycle to illustrate both its economic and human costs.

Zhao doesn’t simply chart the distance between Communist theory and the reality of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Behemoth calls for people to awaken, while recognizing that, alienated from one another under a system of production that both nurtures and feeds on our egoistical desires, the workers become, as the film puts it, “the monster minions.” FILM COMMENT interviewed Zhao about his new film via email.

Behemoth Zhao Liang

In the 19th century, Karl Marx, one of the ideological fathers of Communism, described capitalist Europe’s factory system by evoking a wide variety of monsters ranging from classical mythology to Gothic literature. In the 21st century, you use the Behemoth-monster metaphor to describe how factories function under China’s socialist system. Both in Marx’s writings and in your film Behemoth, workers are prisoners in an underground hell: they are exploited, their blood is poisoned, their life is sucked dry, their bodies are destroyed to feed a huge money-making machine. Meanwhile, nature is also violently exploited and destroyed. In your view, are capitalism and socialism the same thing in today’s China?

In China, the so-called socialism is a “cheating product”: the current socialist system bears no similarity to the kind of socialism that Marxism theorizes. At the same time, it is not the capitalism that you have in the West either. In the current Chinese system, the original bad side of capitalism—its brutal exploitation of human beings and nature—is maintained, and there are none of the democratic characteristics to be found in Western capitalism, such as a minimum of protection for the workers. I would say that Chinese socialism is an extension of feudalism.

What does communism mean to you?

Since I was a kid, I have been taught that communism is a society in which everybody is equal, a society in which there is no privilege—class or otherwise. In communism everybody happily works for his fellow people, for society as a whole, giving his/her little contribution: people do their share and get what they need in return, as the benefit of collective work is equally distributed when resources are abundant. However, for me, this communist ideal is impossible to achieve because egoism lies at the very essence of human nature and it is very difficult to eradicate it. I think that in today’s China nobody believes that communism can be actually achieved, no matter Chinese socialism or the North Korean example. Nobody takes this lie seriously nowadays. We know it is a utopia, something that will never be there, something that cannot be done. The people in my films, most Chinese people… we are all aware that this is a lie. We probably always have been. It’s just like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, I guess: the people see that the Emperor is naked, they just don’t say it out loud.

Marx believed that the monster capitalism would be defeated by the oppressed workers of all nations. Can the Behemoth of your film be defeated by the people of China?

Yes, I think it is possible. From time immemorial, fooling the people in order to exploit them has always been the strategy of the ruling class: the more the people are fooled, the more oppressed they are. So, yesterday as today, the crucial factor for the victory of the people is the awakening of the class of workers and peasants.

In Behemoth, then, there is a spark of hope: we see workers gathering together and publicly protesting because the industrial system is killing them. Can you tell me about their struggle? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The protesters you see in Behemoth are a group of workers who contracted lung disease [pneumoconiosis] at their workplace, in the mines or in the factories. In the film, you can also see the families of the workers who died because of this terrible illness. These outraged people organized themselves to have a strong influence and impact on society, but the tragedy is that, in reality, they act only to gain their own benefit: once they are satisfied in the slightest, they will immediately evacuate the place where their sit-in is being held, and disappear. One of the patients who got lung disease is part of the petitioners’ movement that I depicted in my film Petition: both the petitioners from Petition and the protesters from Behemoth have a similar mentality and a similar experience. The strength of these people is that they are brave and they can fight regardless of danger; their weakness is that they don’t have a clear understanding of society as a whole. As long as something is not closely related to their own personal benefit, they will not be interested in it. This is the essential egoism of human nature that I mentioned earlier, and overcoming this egoism is what I meant by “awakening.” Unfortunately, a human being will never become a true resister as long as he/she can get a little bit of food and warmth. Those in power know this very well and act accordingly, so things remain the way they are and nothing really changes. Therefore, I would say that it is our egoistic desires that are to blame for the situation we find ourselves in. But the current social system is also responsible—the stupid, sneaky strategy of the ruling class.

I think that in your filmography we can see another form of rebellion against injustice and authority that’s very different from the one we see in Behemoth and Petition. I am talking about the young people in Paper Airplane: they don’t work, they waste their time, they make music, they destroy themselves with drugs…

There is a similar background behind all the people who live in the Chinese social system—it doesn’t matter if they are young rock-and-rollers, elderly workers, or retired petitioners. However, I think there is a difference in the feelings portrayed in Paper Airplane and Petition. In Paper Airplane I wanted to express a feeling of confusion, the feeling of being lost and powerless, a kind of pain that was very typical of the youth that formed in China in the 1990s. In Petition as in Behemoth, on the contrary, I wanted to show the persistence and courage of the people in the face of injustice. I wanted to show that they were going through the ordeal of Sisyphus, the vain attempt to push the rock up the hill, and yet I wanted to call for a kind of belief, a type of faith, a kind of spirit…

Behemoth Zhao Liang

And what about your filmmaking: is it a form of rebellion? Are you a rebel? Earlier you mentioned the story of the Emperor’s clothes. Are you the child who shouts that the Emperor is naked?

I don’t like to think of myself as a rebel. I don’t want to construct myself as a myth. I feel that I am only acting like a normal person with a normal sort of mentality. I don’t consider what I do a rebellion. I’d rather think of my work as a process through which I can improve myself. I call this process “self-construction” or “self-improvement.”

In the West, your films are screened in the most important film festivals, and you are called an “artist.” Do you consider yourself an artist?

I believe that calling a person who works in art an “artist” is a great recognition, a way to show respect. In my opinion, working in art is the greatest job for a human being, and I am really proud to do this job. I hope my work makes me deserve the honor of being called an artist.

Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?

For me, every relationship between people is political. People are constantly discussing human society, so, with my interest in people, I cannot get away from politics. I cannot possibly avoid the subject.

What is your social class, as a filmmaker?

I am a poor person according to the average income of Chinese people. However, I demand myself to behave nobly and to lead a rich life on a spiritual level.

How important is money in relation to your filmmaking? Do you need a lot?

Money is important for any movie, I guess. But as far as I am concerned, I don’t need that much to make my films. I am used to working with a very tight budget as compared to other kinds of film productions.

Together with people like Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, and Wang Bing, you are one of the pioneers of digital-video filmmaking. To paraphrase Karl Marx, as a filmmaker who owns his camera, you are a worker who owns the means of production. Would you call yourself “free”?

I feel that I am free to a certain degree on the spiritual level—that is to say, I am free from the conception to the creation of the movie. I could be freer if I could get rid of the stress in material, everyday life…

Do you think MiniDV technology helped making cinema more democratic?

I don’t really understand what you mean by “democratic,” but MiniDV technology did give us more freedom of expression, and now the entrance level is lower than ever. These days, very small devices can produce high-definition images, which makes it possible for young people to produce their own image works.

Could you tell me about your work methodology? I understand that, behind the camera, you work alone most of the time, with no crew.

I worked alone before Together. The main reason for this is that I always had a very tight budget, hence no money to hire professionals to assist me. Moreover, some of the topics I usually deal with in my films are very sensitive and shouldn’t be exposed to many people during the shooting. While I was making Behemoth, the production team had very limited resources. Basically there was me; an assistant cameraman, due to the technical difficulties of operating the professional camera I chose to use; a soundman; and sometimes a field producer. In general, I’d say that it is less stressful for me to shoot alone, because when I am alone I am less distracted. Also, the people I film are less distracted, so their behavior in front of the camera will be more spontaneous, more natural.

Behemoth Zhao Liang

What strikes me in your films is the special relationship I can feel between you and the people you film. Is cinema another way for you to make friends?

No, I don’t make friends through the camera. The camera is my gun for hunting. When I take the camera in my hands, I am a hunter ready to shoot. I make friends when I put down the camera and hold a drink instead.

Do you feel like you are part of a filmmaking movement in China? Or that you belong to a group of Chinese directors who make a certain kind of film?

I don’t know which group I belong to, in China or in the international scene. For me, it’s not good news if I’m told that I belong to this or that group. I think the essence of art is to create something personal, so I hope I will never belong to any group. I belong to my own.

Watching Behemoth, I can see that you have upgraded your camera to HD. Which camera did you use? Did it suit you well, or do you prefer MiniDV?

In Behemoth, I used a Red Scarlet camera to record in 4K. This machine is the smallest of all professional cameras, and has the best quality for a relatively low price. Although it is not as easy to operate alone as other cameras, the difficulties inspired me a lot. For example, sometimes during the shooting of Behemoth I could only use one 50mm lens. The fixed focal length is a limitation, but at the same time this limitation forced me to seek new aesthetic possibilities, and you can see the results on the screen. Limitations force me to do things in ways other than I originally planned and to overcome my old mode of thinking. They push me to be innovative. For me, the aesthetic meaning of images is more important than their journalistic value, which is why I always avoid “playing it safe” and using wide-angle shooting and automatic camera settings.

Specifically, how has the shooting technology influenced your aesthetic choices? I am asking because Behemoth looks very different from Paper Airplane, Crime and Punishment, and Petition. Apart from the 4K quality as opposed to the raw look of MiniDV, in Behemoth there is more space for fiction, and for organizing nice shots and compositions, whereas, in your previous works, the filmmaking is more about following the life of the people in front of you.

I wouldn’t focus so much on technological determinism. For me, filmmaking is not about the technology. The camera is just a tool that I use for my research. What really drives me is my “sense of art,” which is something personal and very difficult for me to put into words, I am afraid.

I totally understand. You are a film practitioner, and the film is there for us to see: the aesthetic discussion is embedded in the movie, so to speak. Which leads us to the issue of watching your films… Let’s talk about distribution. Except for Together, all of your movies are banned in China. I read that there they are circulated on pirated DVDs only. Are you happy with these DVDs and how much do they cost?

Film piracy in China is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’ve benefited from the pirated copies of my movies, in that piracy helped audiences to discover my work and “find” me. On the other hand, I got upset when I found out my films were being copied without my permission. I provide some of my films for free as a donation to society, but not all of them—it depends, it is my decision. In any case, I can’t really do anything when I see copies of my films in the Chinese “pirate market.” Yet I rarely see them there because the factories that pirate movies in China are cooperating with the Chinese government. They understand “the trend,” they know the dos and don’ts. For instance, the factories do not pirate Petition. A person who is in that business once told me: “We don’t copy Petition because the film is seriously banned.” This person was worried that if he pirated Petition, the authorities would force him to close down his lucrative business. This is to say that piracy is still illegal in China, it is copyright infringement. As for the price, in China pirated DVDs are professionally produced: the price for a D9 with Chinese subtitles is between 9-15 yuan [$1.30-2], whereas a Blu-ray with Chinese subtitles is about 15 yuan [$2].

Behemoth Zhao Liang

Piracy or not, Behemoth is certainly a film to be experienced in a movie theater, because the sound is amazingly powerful. In my opinion, Behemoth is one of those films that remind us that we don’t only watch them, we also listen to them. What were the challenges of recording sound for Behemoth?

I worked hard on sound effects, indeed: I enhanced the contrast between the sounds and carefully associated them with the images to produce affinities and oppositions. Sometimes I even “played games” with my audience’s ears, as you can clearly hear over the course of the film. The main problem, in terms of sound design, was that I couldn’t really hire professionals due to budget reasons. However, I think that my collaborators and I managed to create something that is very close to my original idea of what the movie should sound like.

There is a lot of poetry in the film, evidently inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Did you write this poetry? Is it your voice that we hear reading it?

Yes, it is my voice you hear in the voiceover. About 75 percent of these poems are from The Divine Comedy. The rest of them are adapted by me to fit the narrative I created. In my opinion, the three worlds imagined by Dante 700 years ago are maybe a prediction of us today.

Speaking of poetry, in my view the most moving, poetic moment in the film is when we listen to the sound made by the callous hands of a factory worker. Tell me about that sound: why did you include it? What does it mean to you?

The sound you hear is the original sound from the field recording. I looked at the hands of the workers and saw their skin hardened from their daily labor. So I decided to film a pair of these hands, and I told the soundman to put the microphone closer to them in order to enhance whatever sound might come from them. Thus magnified, the sound produced by the friction of the skin is meant to unsettle, to trouble you. I wanted the sound to go beyond its physical, “natural” characteristics and affect the audience on the psychological level. Moreover, the brief scene of the worker’s hands echoes what I say at the beginning of the movie: “He [one of the workers] does not know how to write poetry, yet the eloquence his heart exhales is no less powerful than The Divine Comedy.”

Contrary to Dante’s Paradise, there’s no one inhabiting the Chinese “Heaven” of your film: the huge Paradise City they built with the steel from the factory is empty of people.

There are hundreds of ghost cities like that in China. They are nearly everywhere: in “tier 1” cities [metropolises], in “tier 2” cities [provincial capitals], and “tier 3” cities [cities of smaller dimensions and secondary economic importance]. There is a ghost city in my hometown as well. The ghost city is caused by the blind development, by the unplanned expansion. It is a consequence of the economic model with Chinese characteristics, which is not following the economic laws, namely the regulation of price driven by the supply-demand system. As a matter of fact, the ghost city is the result of one of the many economic bubbles artificially created by the Chinese political system. In China, the price of property is manipulated to allow investors to make huge profits. The possibility of speculation nurtures a fever of real-estate investments, hence the flow of “hot money” in the sector over the past few years. Local governments actively encourage property developers to construct more and more new cities by offering them preferential policies. This way, the government can boast its land-developing achievements and Gross Domestic Product figures, and more plots of land and buildings can be sold under these circumstances. However, the bubble doesn’t last in the long run. These days, making money in real estate has become very hard in China because of oversupply. Hence, all the failed mortgage repayments by the investors, the bad debts, the banks acquiring property, the ghost cities.

There is a 1971 Italian film by Elio Petri called The Working Class Goes to Heaven, which, just like your movie, is about the hopes, dreams, and desires of the exploited workers of a nation. Will the Chinese working class ever go to Heaven?

I think it still takes time for the class of Chinese workers and peasants to become educated and have a clear understanding of society as a whole. The awakening takes time, so it might be a while before they can get into the Heaven. Otherwise, they can only be buried in the Hell they are helping to construct.