It’s been quite a while since I have reviewed a book. This was primarily down to my not finding the right ones, or my waiting for certain books to be published. Slow Cinema continues to enjoy a particular attention in France, albeit it is important to note – once more – that Slow Cinema is an anglo-saxon term and if you were to look for something on the subject in French, you wouldn’t find anything at all. Reason being that those films are written about in a “normal” way, meaning they’re treated like any other film. Of course, their specific aesthetics do stand out, but there is no focus on the long-takes, on long duration, on minimalism. French writers speak about what those films have to tell (which is the most important part) and only then they say how they tell their stories.
Quite some time ago, I wrote about Antony Fiant’s Pour un cinéma contemporain soustractif (2014), which was very much a book about Slow Cinema (the first one, I believe) without mentioning the word. It was a good read, because it was so different from anglo-saxon literature on the subject. Fiant, who is professor at Rennes 2, in the city where I live (and where he also teaches a module on Wang Bing!), is back with a book on Chinese director Wang Bing. The director is clearly the most important contemporary filmmaker and the pace with which he releases films that deal with the conditions of his country is exceptional.
Wang Bing – Un geste documentaire de notre temps (2019) takes a look at all of the director’s films, with Fiant trying to group them into “cycles” or “trilogies”. One only needs to read the chapter headings in order to get more than a good glimpse of what Wang Bing’s filmography is about: “Lutter contre une amnésie historique” (A fight against amnesia), “Communautés dépossédées” (Dispossessed communities), “Individus dépossédés” (Dispossessed Individuals), “Quelle faute avais-je commis?” (What have I done wrong?). Without necessarily having seen all of Wang Bing’s films, one can gather that his country is not in a good state, nor is it developing into the right direction. That said, it isn’t surprising that the director, as Fiant correctly points out, is working clandestinely (“un cinéma contrebandier”). His films are the harvest of what the Communist Party and their political decisions sow. He gives silenced and silent histories a voice and is therefore much more than a filmmaker. He is also a historian, an activist, someone who, on an international stage, counters the official narrative of the state.
In the context of West of the Tracks, Fiant uses a term that I find interesting and also important. I wrote something similar in my thesis, when I spoke about Lav Diaz’s Melancholia. Diaz’s film contains a scene in which a group of activists dig up the remains of a disappeared person. The camera work in one specific scene differs from all other scenes. Diaz and his camera become archaeologists, who, themselves, help to uncover the dark truth behind the desaparecidos of the country. Fiant speaks of “une contemplation exploratrice”, a specific form of contemplation that seeks to explore. Even though the author uses this term in the context of West of the Tracks, I find that it describes a lot of the director’s films. The act of exploration characterises Wang Bing’s filmography. Although there are clear differences between his “mobile” pieces, such as Man without a Name, and his “static” works, like He Fengming, the act of exploration is at the heart of every single of his films.
The subjects Wang Bing explores in his films always, without exception, raise ethical questions, as is the case with documentary cinema in general. Fiant picks up this subject time and again and he speaks, in particular, about three ways in which Wang Bing avoids crossing boundaries. What is important in the context of documentaries, Fiant argues, is the position of the filmmaker/the camera with respect to the subject. Fiant identifies an aux côtés de, a face à and an autour de. Importantly, Wang Bing is never really involved in what he films. He is present, and one can see, or even hear, this clearly. At times there is the filmmaker’s shadow visible in the frame, at others we can hear his breathing. And yet, as Fiant notes, Wang Bing remains exterior to the actual action, which can be noticed in his instinctive choices, like this beautiful scene in ‘Til madness do us part, when he follows a young man who runs around the mental hospital.
The liberty with which he films, expressed through the sheer number of hours of rushes, allows him, in parts, to contain the aspect of ethics. I was positively surprised that Fiant mentions this aspect of Wang Bing’s cinema several times, because other than his formidable Mrs Fang, none of his films have attracted such a debate, even though ethics are at the centre of his filmmaking. The same is true of the anthropological character, which Fiant identifies throughout his book. And it is those notes by Fiant, which I appreciate most. His book brings in fresh material. It is not existing material newly assembled, which we have seen several times with literature on slow films. There are actually new points you can take away with and investigate further, also in respect to other slow-film directors.
Fiant’s book is one of already three excellent French-language books on the Chinese director. Remains to be seen if, and when, there will be an English-language translation. I, for my part, hope so because they all contain a lot of good material, which should be made more accessible. Fingers crossed!