An Undetermined History: On Wang Bing’s Dead Souls
Mao Zedong launched the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957 as a reaction to the critical statements that emerged from the Hundred Flowers Movement (1956), during which intellectuals were encouraged to express their honest views on the Communist Party. As a result of this brutal campaign, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were sent to hard labor camps for re-education. In his latest documentary, Dead Souls (2018), presented at Anthology Film Archives in three parts from December 14 to 21, Wang Bing addresses the forgotten history of Jiabiangou, one of the most brutal camps, located in the northwestern region of Gansu province.
Dead Souls marks a new installment in Wang’s ongoing investigation of the history of Jiabiangou. The camp was also the subject of his lone fiction film, The Ditch (2010). Based on the book Gaobie Jiabiangou by Yang Xianhui (2003) and on survivors’ memories, The Ditch re-enacts some episodes of the Anti-Rightist movement. With Dead Souls, Wang delves deeper into the survivors’ recollections to record an oral history of Jiabiangou, the result of 120 interviews conducted between 2005 and 2014 and 600-some hours of footage. Here, he leaves observational documentary behind to privilege the interview as his primary mode of investigation. His recent documentary work has tended to use the perceptible shakiness of handheld cinematography to immerse the spectator in the sheer physicality of his subjects, such as ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), in which Wang followed patients suffering from dementia running up and down hallways of an asylum, capturing their restless state of mind. While Wang’s light equipment and working methodology generally lends itself perfectly to this type of direct cinema, in Dead Souls, the director instead relies heavily upon static tableaux, direct and diegetic sound, and oral testimony.
He Fengming, whose husband died of famine at Jiabiangou, was one of Wang’s interviewees. Her testimony stood out so strongly that the director made this interview the subject of a stand-alone documentary. Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007) was part of the same broader project as The Ditch, and together, the two films can be considered precursors to Dead Souls’ 506-minute epic history of Jiabiangou. Concerning the formal strategies in Fengming and Dead Souls, Wang has cited the influence of post-New Wave French director Jean Eustache, in particular his film Numéro Zero (1971), which Wang first saw at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2003 and which consists almost entirely of a lengthy interview conducted by Eustache with his grandmother. Wang recalls being mesmerized by the effectiveness of the subject’s uninterrupted narration, a mesmerism he strives to recreate here.1
While Fengming features the testimony of an individual, female survivor, in Dead Souls, most interviewees are former male prisoners; survivors’ wives and family members only make rare, brief appearances. Catching glimpses of them on the fringes of Wang’s shots, one cannot help but wonder about them, how they themselves managed to survive. This decision to focus on the survivors who were at Jiabiangou highlights a sense of urgency, as fewer and fewer survivors remain.2 The funeral of one of the survivors interviewed in Dead Souls is included in a scene at the beginning of the film. All of the village’s residents are present to lament the recently deceased and listen to the survivor’s eldest son recount the tragic story of his father’s life. The scene establishes a dramatic tone for the interviews that follow, as we find out how little attention the experience of these prisoners has received, both during their lives and posthumously. During his research, Wang traveled to the former site of the camp to corroborate the descriptions of the interviewed subjects. In these scenes, the director’s handheld camera often points to the ground, scouring the desert for human remains abandoned there more than 60 years ago. We hear the sound of Wang’s footsteps upon the harsh soil in which the former prisoners dug ditches to sleep in for months on end, most of them dying of starvation.
Beyond the physical pain and hardship the victims describe, Dead Souls reveals a disorganized government deploying extra-legal procedures. No published death statistics or official lists of names exist to account for this history and its consequences, including the traumatic effects it had on a significant portion of the Chinese population and subsequent generations. In almost every interview, Wang asks the survivors (always in a markedly straightforward and detached voice): why were they accused of being rightists? The victims, as it turns out, are still asking themselves this same question. Zhao Tiemin, a former teacher of mathematics, now in his 70s, still regrets the idealism of his youth and for having ever believed in the Communist Party. The victims attest to a fundamental trust in society prior to the Anti-Rightist Movement, one that was irrevocably shattered.
Wang’s decision to present the story of Jiabiangou as an oral history feels like a moral necessity given the sheer force of each individual testimony. Each survivor’s story is captivating, in some cases conveyed with fiery passion, in others with the serenity of retrospection or a palpable sense of anxiety and paranoia. Each individual describes a unique experience and relationship to the regime that determined their fates; the uniting features of their testimonies are their horrendous, heartbreaking and inhumane details.
The process for Dead Souls, whose methodological origins can be traced back to Wang’s debut feature, the monumental, nine-hour epic West of the Tracks (2003), exemplifies Wang’s approach. The director aims to observe the ‘real’ and extrapolate narratives from an extensive process of shooting. In both cases, the films’ impressive durations challenge the spectator’s engagement with the work, actively provoking them to make a physical and psychic investment in the viewing experience while simultaneously evoking the impossibility of building an absolutely comprehensive account of any historical event through documentation.
The testimonies offered by the survivors in Dead Souls is but a small part of Jiabiangou’s silenced history, and very few have previously had the opportunity to recount their experiences. One is as troubled by the quantity and the severity of their stories and their unimaginable reality as by imagining all the testimonies that remain unspoken, still lingering, unburied above the Gobi desert.
- Wang Bing’s introduction to Dead Souls at FSLC, November 16 2018.
- The director has stated that Dead Souls is a unfinished project, and presents only the first third of a larger story. Ibid.
BEATRICE GRENIER writes on modern and contemporary art, with a focus on transnational modernisms. She lives and works in New York.