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One Soul to Another — Wang Bing’s Monumental ‘Dead Souls’

Dead Souls (Wang Bing, 2018)

In 1957, the Chinese government under Mao Zedong ordered to remove all ‘bad elements’ that could possibly be a danger to the regime. In between 550,000 and 1,300,000 so-called ‘rightists’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were sent to labour camps in the Gobi Desert to be re-educated through work. This massive purge went down — or rather, disappeared — in history as the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-1960). In the camps of Jiabiangou and Mingshui around 3200 ultra-rightists were held prison. Within three years time, almost all of the prisoners, approximately 2700, died of starvation.

Over the course of twelve years, Chinese director Wang Bing tracked down and interviewed 120 of the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camp survivors, recording 600 hours of rushes, and edited the material into an eight-and-a-half-hour work titled Dead Souls (2018). Out of 120 he chose fifteen survivors to testify about their life before, during and after their time in the camp. They talk about their own experience of being on the edge of death, and about their friends and fellow inmates who died of starvation, illness or exhaustion; about leaving for the ‘re-education’ camps cluelessly having packed an extra steam-cleaned costume and their most expensive pen; about taking up their jobs obediently within months after the liberation. If Dead Souls’ stories are stunning, their cinematic translation are even more so. All but slow, the film pushes forward, the individual voices lifting you up and not letting you go until the end: it is truly an extraordinary film that sticks to your soul.

I. Dead Souls’ voices: a collaboration

Wang’s investigation into the history of labour camps under Mao’s reign started in 2004 when he first encountered Yang Xianhui’s book Chronicles of Jiabiangou (2004), a collection of nineteen portraits based on extensive interviews with camp survivors. Soon after its publication, Wang bought the rights to the book and started writing the script for his first (and only) fiction film The Ditch (2010). His encounter with He Fengming, a former journalist/accused rightist and one of the witnesses in Yang’s book, was intended as preliminary research for this film but turned into a documentary in its own right: Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), Wang’s first film dealing with the camps. Three years later The Ditch was released, a film recorded without authorisation on a secret location in the Gobi Desert, cast and crew consisting predominantly of friends. It recounts the prisoners’ day-to-day hardships as well as the story of a woman who travelled all the way to the camp looking for her husband. Wang went on collecting testimonies when finally, in May 2018 Dead Souls came into being, first shown to the audience at Cannes. And apparently, this is only just the first part (of two).

Courtesy of Grasshopper Film and Icarus Films
Gao Guifang in a scene from Dead Souls (Wang BIng, 2018)

Dead Souls opens with an interview of the 85-year-old Zhou Huinan, flanked by his wife Gao Guifang. The interview dates from 2005 and Zhou, a former officer now living in Lanzhou, provides us with a lot of background information, for example as to how one ended up being accused rightist. Chairman Mao notoriously asserted that in a group of hundred people five had to be rightist. “If you didn’t find them”, Zhou explains, “you were the conservative rightist”. Four hours later in the film, we meet professor Zhao Tiemin, who talks more explicitly about the camp life that he endured for exactly two years and three months. In the beginning, the situation was more or less bearable. After a year, people started dying. Immense food shortage resulted from the camp’s alleged status of being self-sufficient — an obvious fiction in an environment of barren wastelands. In sheer desperation prisoners harvested in the evening the potatoes which they planted in the morning. Understanding what was written between the lines of his auto-censored letters, Zhao’s wife hid very thinly baked bread in her replies. Suddenly Zhao’s testimony is interrupted by a visitor by the name of professor Pang entering his living room. Zhao welcomes her with a polite but absent gesture without turning away from the camera. She crosses the frame twice, returns with some mandarins and finally installs herself on the right-hand side, listening. A sense of comedy and tragedy is inherent to this scene, but above all an illuminating sense of urgency persists; Zhao has to finish as if it were to be done in one single breath. His story finally reaches liberation day: he recalls how some died of excitement the night before, others on their journey to the train station. His guest, professor Pang, is still listening, a bit unsettled; Wang reframes to include her in the image. The interview ends with a caption saying that professor Zhao Tiemin died that year. And so did Zhou Huinan, the former officer. Cinema can create this illusion of someone being alive, only for the revelation of their death to kick in harder at the end: talking ghosts, Zhao and Zhou are now too dead souls.

II. Dead Souls’ structure: forward dynamics

In an interview with Emmanuel Burdeau, Wang expressed that he was very much concerned with how he was going to structure the vast number of testimonies. As we can see from the two testimonies above, there is an intelligent build up of information ranging from more contextual data at the beginning to the deep inside of camp life. According to Wang, the result “in a completely natural way and without any interfering on [his] part is that the testimonies themselves become interlinked”.Wang Bing in conversation with Emmanuel Burdeau, in: Cannes press kit, 2018, 12. In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma he added: “one thing was sure, I wanted the dynamics of the film to always push me forward, and that’s why you never encounter a flashback or crosscutting in between the stories.”“Rendre la parole, entretien avec Wang Bing”, in: Cahiers du cinéma n°748, oktober 2018, 44 (my translation, my italics).

Indeed, like in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), or in Chantal Akerman’s De l’autre côté (2002), Wang doesn’t use archival material nor re-enactments but solely present-time interviews to tell his stories. He juxtaposes these interviews with images of the Mingshui site at present, exploring the landscape in all its materiality and almost mystique quality as the peaceful rural character of the site today still holds something of the violent past — very similar to Lanzmann’s explorations of the sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka in Shoah. In a beautiful scene in Dead Souls, a survivor talks with a local farmer, who was relocated to this area in the late eighties. Both try locating the exact place of where the camp used to be. Their search leads them through a cornfield, with Wang’s camera close in pursuit. In the last, astounding scene of the film, again on the Mingshui site, Wang aims his camera at the ground and starts walking around, documenting the human remains of prisoners scattered around in the grasslands. Especially this shot is very reminiscent of Akerman, specifically, the last scene of her 1999 documentary Sud. Set in the town of Jasper, Texas, Sud deals with the murder of James Byrd, an African American man who was killed by white supremacists, dragged behind their truck. In the extended last shot of the film, after watching a number of interviews with different witnesses to the crime, Akerman installs her camera in the back of a truck, slightly tilts it downwards and meticulously scans the texture of the road looking for evidence of the past crime.

Another poetic analogy to Shoah is that interviews are presented in their entirety. Ziva Postec, Shoah’s editor who worked through 350 hours of material, a full time six-year task, argued that editing a documentary is much more of a creation process than editing a fiction film: “you have to reconstitute through imagination what happened in reality.”Interview with Postec in the film Ziva Postec. La monteuse derrière le film Shoah, (Catherine Hébert, 2018) (my translation). She also mentions the rhythm, the musicality of the whole: “I put a lot of silence in between words. For the spectator: to breathe, and to accept.” The result of this economy of images and only seemingly invisible montage is something hors-categorie, exceeding all genre differentiations, leading Simone de Beauvoir to conclude in her preface to Shoah’s textbook that this was “neither fiction nor documentary”.De Beauvoir, Simone. “Preface”, in: Shoah: the complete text of the film, 1985, vii. Wang and Lanzmann both speak of their ‘protagonists’ when talking about their respective films. However, Wang didn’t get the idea for this form solely from Lanzmann but from Yang’s Chronicles of Jiabiangou, Dead Souls’ ‘source text’, as well. And this book too, “situated ambiguously between oral history and literary intervention” according to Sebastian VegVeg, Sebastian. “Testimony, History and Ethics: From the Memory of Jiabiangou Prison Camp to a Reappraisal of the Anti-Rightist Movement in Present-Day China”, in: The China Quarterly 218, 2014, 514., re-narrates the recorded interviews and alters individuals’ names.

Interestingly, Wang himself referred to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as an exemplary film daring to overstep conventional film duration and to take the time to deeply engage with the story, or in Wang’s own words: “[it is] a film slowly moving towards literature.”Unpublished interview held at Courtisane Festival 2018. Rather than seeing this as an anti-cinematic stance, we should read this comment in light of his efforts to radically alter the existing temporal conditions of cinema. The French have an interesting way of describing Wang’s films as a “documentaire fleuve”, analogous to the roman-fleuve: a chronicle-like novel, not only long and narrated in great detail but also part of a sequence. Like Balzac’s multi-volume La comédie humaine (1929-1950), each novel is both complete in itself and referring to a bigger socio-political conjuncture. Whether tackling China’s Communist past, the transformation of a state-owned industry to a free market economy after the reforms in the seventies or China’s hypercapitalist society today, all of these films are essentially on the same topic, each time dialectically connected with the present. Dead Souls’ title too can be read as a wink to literature: the storyline isn’t so much like Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 novel Dead Souls, but its poetics more or less are: a big scope, a realist eagerness to preserve a historic juncture in great detail and an inexhaustible ambition to get to the truth of how things are.

III. Dead Souls’ objective: a dialogue

The twelve years Wang took to make Dead Souls also turned it into a record of cinema’s visual/digital transformation. His 2005 static, low quality shots are often blatantly under/overexposed: it adds to the blurry, abstract, painteresque quality of his shots. His 2015 recordings are very different: beautifully photographed with second-hand Zeiss and Leica lenses, Wang dynamically follows his subjects through their living rooms. Somewhere around the sixth hour we see the director himself for the first time, interviewing a former camp guard – it is the twelve years younger version of Wang. As the director gets older and his technical equipment newer, we experience time passing in a very direct almost Brechtian way. The highly visual confrontation between the film’s internal differences in image quality, format and camera handling, pulls us straight into the materiality of the image, as well as into its temporal quality, into its creation process. The form ‘reveals’ itself, just like in Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, when Fengming gets up from her sofa to go to the toilet and the director doesn’t cut; our gaze stays fixed on the empty chair anticipating her return.

With its title alluding to both victims and survivors, Dead Souls is an ode to the courageous people we meet and to those we can no longer meet as well as to cinema itself as medium that possibly has the ability to postpone death. We listen to people who once were close to death and now are once again. “Suddenly I was faced with two relationships with death extremely close to one another: death in the camps and death due to old age. The second is natural; the first is not. Although in opposition to each other, they touch each other.Wang Bing in conversation with Emmanuel Burdeau, in: Cannes press kit, 2018, 10 (my italics). Interviews that are twelve years apart in time complement each other. Indeed, the period of 1957-1960 seems far removed, yet when Wang aims his camera at the remains of the camp’s site today, it somehow doesn’t feel so distant after all.

“When I found a structure, I realised that the most important thing was to, through the words of the survivors, give back the words to those who died in the camps. In other words, to take up this search for common memory through listening to the survivors.”“Rendre la parole, entretien avec Wang Bing”, in: Cahiers du cinéma n°748, oktober 2018, 44. The end titles tell us that Dead Souls is a tribute to those who died in the Gobi Desert; it calls out to them, through a detour of the present — this idea of a dialogue is perhaps more articulate in the film’s original title: Past in the Present. It is terrifying and at the same time utterly beautiful. A mosaic, a composition with a delicacy that is confusing. An experience that Simone De Beauvoir aptly described in her preface to Shoah: “I should add that I would never have imagined such a combination of beauty and horror.”De Beauvoir, Simone. “Preface”, in: Shoah: the complete text of the film, 1985, x.

Dead Souls (Wang Bing, 2018)