Dead Souls – Wang Bing (2018)

It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation. 

His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off. 

Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.

Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts. 

Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like. 

In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp. 

A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different. 

Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors. 

“You lose your humanity.”

“It had become banal to see dead people.”

“People no longer resembled human beings.”

Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women. 

The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls? 

Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day. 

“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”

“Only death could have ended that suffering.”

Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then. 

For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors. 

But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul. 

Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)

Bitter Money – Wang Bing (2016)

I don’t know whether it’s only my perception of it or whether there is indeed a real surge of interest in the films of Wang Bing here in Europe. It is strangely satisfying to see an advertisement in your daily newspaper for the director’s Ta’ang on DVD, followed by the announcement of this year’s dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany) that they will host a full retrospective of Wang Bing. And then I browsed aimlessly through the website of French-German TV channel ARTE and what did I find? The director’s new film Bitter Money.

As, for instance, West of the TracksBitter Money is an impassioned look at the life of workers in China. To see these two films almost side by side is a very interesting matter. Tie Xi Qu as well as Coal Money are about (quite literally) the dirty work: extracting coal, manufacturing metal sheets and electric cables in factories that are below any health and safety standard. Especially West of the Tracks, to me, showed the older generation. There were several men in their late forties, early fifties who hoped that their children would have a better future. In some ways, Bitter Money seems like an investigation into whether this hope has materialised.

What Wang Bing’s film shows first of all is the shift in China’s economy. Bitter Money is a film about China’s textile industry with a particular emphasis on small private sewing rooms. The director does not explore the conditions in the main clothing factories, but focuses instead on the many private sewing room owners and those who work for them. As is common practice with Wang Bing, he singles out a few workers and follows them throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours running time. It starts in a claustrophobic room in which several young people sit together. It appears to be one of the girl’s last evening at home, as she is taken to the city for work. Wang Bing keeps all of this anonymous. I’m not sure whether he ever mentions the name of the teenage girl, or whether he wants her to stand in, anonymously, for all the other young people who migrate away from the Chinese countryside in order to look for work.

The girl previously said that she had changed her age on official papers, which seems to be doable in some parts of China but not in others. It’s likely that she did this in order to be considered as eligible for work. Situations are dire in the countryside and people do whatever it takes in order to earn money. The girl is making her way to the city first by bus, then by train. Wang Bing remains for a very long time in this train, a night train it seems, filming the people sleeping, exhausted from the previous part of their journey. Others play cards, but overall it’s quiet in the train. It startled me when the people arrived in the city (which is also kept anonymous, if I remember correctly) and the sound level increased immensely. You get a real sense of the bustling life in the city; the people, the cars, the honking, the sheer speed with which everything is happening.

Initially, Wang Bing follows a group of three young people, amongst them the teenage girl and her cousin. He stays with them for a little while, while they move into their new home – an austere room with only the very basics with the busy street right outside the window (“This is what it’s like when you work far from home”, one of them says) – before he shifts his focus away from them. The story of the teenage girl who changed her age to make it to the city for work merges with the story of a thirty-something woman who fled her abusive husband. I believe that this man, whom we later see hitting his wife, is the only one who is clearly named throughout the film. Wang Bing singles him out and thereby forces the viewer to recognise the man whenever he pops up in the director’s frames.

And this he does when his wife comes to see him in his shop (“their shop”, as she insists) in order to ask him for money. The marriage had been problematic since the beginning, but it boiled over when she invested in a small textile company. Now, her body is covered in bruises. Wang Bing remains outside of the shop and films the violent encounter between husband and wife, the former repeatedly threatening that he would kill her, that he would skin her alive. He repeatedly grabs her by the throat and hits her, all the while Wang Bing keeps recording. Ethics are a thoroughly interesting subject in the director’s films, and it would need another post in order to explore this in more detail. Suffice to say here that I did wonder when (if at all) Wang Bing would have interfered in this lengthy, very uncomfortable scene.

In the meantime, the teenage girl’s cousin is returning home, which sets the actual exploration of working conditions in motion. The young man complains about the long working hours – he begins at 7am and works till midnight with no lunch break – and decides that this isn’t a life for him. This is followed by the first extensive sequence showing people manufacturing clothes, seemingly in a normal house, upstairs, with only a sewing machine and pairs of scissors. It’s very rudimentary, and looks almost clandestine. There is one girl in this group of people who doesn’t look older than 14. Indeed, Bitter Money, as mentioned above, shows the young generation more than anything else, and investigates whether they have a better life than their parents had hoped for.

After two-and-a-half hours, I’m not sure I can say that they’re better off. If you look at West of the Tracks, you could say that there are less health hazards in the textile industry, at least in those areas that Wang Bing shows us. However, there is little else that sets those young people off from their parents. Worst of all is, perhaps, that they don’t have a home to go to. The workers live together in austere rooms. Their actual homes are often so far away from the city that they can’t go home without taking too many days off work, which means a huge loss of money. While workers in West of the Tracks seem to be long-standing colleagues who have spent half their lives together, workers in Bitter Money appear lonely. They work together, but they usually don’t speak. It’s about making the most shirts, the most coats during the day. Anything that can distract is avoided. If a worker isn’t fast enough, s/he gets sacked. In this way, there is a persistent change in the work force and it’s not possible to strike up year-long friendships that help the workers through hardships.

What Bitter Money shows is the individual rather than the collective. Compared to the director’s other films I have seen so far, this one looks very polished and quite deliberately edited in order to follow a three-act structure, something I have already noticed in his testimony film Fengming, a Chinese memoir. Bitter Money lacks the spontaneity that West of the Tracks showed, something that made the film unpredictable and that gave you a real sense of witnessing something. Despite my liking the film, I would say that the director didn’t manage to get to the bottom of what’s happening the way he managed it in West of the Tracks, which perhaps is down to the time spent on the subject matter. For both films, he spent over 2 years filming, but the end result is very different: there is a nine-hour piece on the one hand that contains all details of the collapse of an industrial complex, and a two-and-a-half hour film on the other that, to me, is strong, but could be much stronger if it had been given more time to breathe. I begin to wonder whether long running times aren’t best for documentaries, because you know that if a director has filmed for two years and the final product is comparatively short, a lot of material has been cut.

West of the Tracks – Wang Bing (2003)

If you hear people speaking about Slow Cinema, or see lists of films that are usually considered to be part of this genre or this movement (whatever it is), then you will hear or see the name of Wang Bing and his exceptional film Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks). With a running-time of nine hours, it’s not his longest documentary. Crude Oil tops this with an extra five hours. If there is something that characterises Wang Bing’s films, and this can be partly seen in the lengths of his films, is that he spends a lot of time with the people he films.

West of the Tracks is a cinematic document about the collapse of the industrial complex Tie Xi Qu at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, Wang Bing follows the lives and work of primarily temporary workers at factories that will close in the near future. In several segments we are told by the workers that all permanent, full-time employees have already left the factories because they were no longer being paid. What remains are groups of temporary workers, here and there. Spectres. Just like the run-down, half-empty, half-demolished parts of the factories. Wang Bing’s film is a film about absence-in-the-making. Until the end of the 1990s, over 50,000 people had been employed there. Tie Xi is both workplace and living space. Both are disappearing in front of our eyes, and so are the people.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

RustRemnants, and Rails – the three parts of the film – each focus on their own little cosmos, each part tying the knots a bit tighter on the people who try to make a living, or to simply survive. Rust is the longest part of the film and divided into two parts. The part’s four hours running time takes us through the happenings of a smelting plant, an electric cable factory, and a sheet metal factory. This part, in particular, defies the usual characterisation of a slow film being quiet and peaceful. Wang Bing’s film is anything but. If there is one thing that stood out for me personally, it is the sound track. There is a constant noise in the background. The noise in the factories is almost deafening. Only the electric cable is a bit of a respite to what Rust usually shows us. The colours are mysterious, and, partly, reminded me of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, which I reviewed on this blog a little while ago.

Rust is about the factories themselves. Wang Bing follows the workers in several scenes, but the focus remains persistently on the factories, which we enter and exit via lengthy train journeys with the camera attached to the front of a train. These journeys made me think of the first traveling shot in cinema; a hallucinatory journey through empty places and a sort of symbol of Wang Bing’s film. The director records the men at work, revealing the disregard of any safety procedures. Money is what counts. The workers have no value unless they create (monetary) value. Their health and their safety count for nothing. Rust is a document of capitalist exploitation, taking place in a communist country that refuses to acknowledge publicly that it, too, has been seduced by the ideas of capitalism and consumerism, and that their people have to suffer as a result.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

West of the Tracks wasn’t made with official blessing. It was shot clandestinely, helped by a small digital camera the director used. This film wouldn’t have made it past the state censorship, like all of Wang Bing’s films. He films what doesn’t exist officially. He writes the stories that have officially never happened. He films the flip side of the country’s enormous boom: the extreme poverty of parts of the population, the exploitation of the workforce in absolute disregard of their health and safety, the rehousing of people against their will, the frank neglect of everyone who does not belong to the top 1%.

Remnants and Rails show all of this in poignant ways. Remnant is set in Rainbow Row, the housing complex that is part of Tie Xi. In contrast to the first part of the film, Remnants is a more intimate portrait of the people who suffer from the collapse of Tie Xi. This is no longer just about the workers, but about their families. Rainbow Row is destined for demolition. The people are promised a new house if they sign up for it by a certain date. Several of the people we see in the film, however, refuse to do so, and risk being homeless once Rainbow Row is getting demolished. What becomes clear in the discussions between the people, which primarily take place in the local shop – a sort of gathering point for them because it has everything, even a telephone – is that the local councils attempt to trick the people, drastically reducing the amount of compensation they will pay to those who lose their jobs or giving them a much smaller flat which does not offer enough space for a family. As a result, some people refuse to leave their house, a protest that leads to their being cut off from electricity in November 2000.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

In some ways, Remnants is a look into the future, albeit it is set in the present. Wang Bing focuses primarily on a group of youngsters, amongst them Bobo and Whitey. They’re roaming the streets, speaking about their love interests or about their goals in life (“We’re the same”, says Bobo, “we have no goals.”). I remember one man being worried about his son. He himself doesn’t have proper education, nor does his son. Everything around them is collapsing, and it’s unlikely that his son will have it any better in future. It might as well get worse. Part of this collapse is also the collapse of the human being. The mother of Wang Zhen is diagnosed with cancer. The mood is sombre, and continuously drops throughout the rest of the film. She’s getting treatment and her hair fall out. She shows this to someone in the streets. Wang Bing keeps recording, offering no comment. We’re left with this tragic image. Remnants ends quietly, and as a complete contrast to Rust. It is quiet, almost peaceful, perhaps dead. The majority of Rainbow Row has been demolished. A few people are still living in the area, amongst rubbles, without water or electricity. “Fuck,” an old man says. “It’s as if everyone has died.”

As was the case in the first part of West of the Tracks, Wang Bing often travels by train in the third chapter of the film, aptly called Rails. Even though he depicts a group of workers again, Rails becomes the tragic ending of what we have seen before. The emphasis is placed on old Lao Du and his son, Du Yang. Lao Du has been working on the railways for over 20 years, but he was never employed. He made a living by selling whatever he could find in the complex. “It’s not easy with children,” he says. His wife left him. One of his sons works in a restaurant. The second son is still living with him. The pressure, the stress, the fear of losing everything is drowning him. One day, Lao Du is arrested, and it is not clear when he would return. At the same time, Du Yang, the son, is informed about the demolition of their place. Alone in the small house, he shows Wang Bing photographs of his family and begins to cry when he sees pictures of his mother.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

The director’s focus on Du Yang is poignant. Wang Bing stays with him, recording this microcosmos of the collapse of Tie Xi. When Yang’s father is released, Yang appears to suffer a complete mental collapse in a restaurant where he is eating with his father. He cries, he shouts, he seems to have trouble to coordinate himself, he even hits his father several times. What has happened over the years was too much for him. He could take no more. Du Yang becomes the tragic figure of West of the Tracks, a young man, who inhabits the collapse of everything around him.

West of the Tracks is a long and slow film, but the collapse of Tie Xi Du happened very quickly. In the matter of two years, people lost everything they ever possessed. Without Wang Bing, this part of China’s recent past would not have been written. It would have become part of the several other histories that disappeared into oblivion because it wouldn’t be right to acknowledge failure and exploitation. It just doesn’t fit into this image of a rising, prosperous and successful country. As he would do four years later with Fengming – A Chinese Memoir (2009), Wang Bing uses the camera not only to record history, or rather history-in-the-making, but to write history. West of the Tracks is a cinematic document that, despite its running time, needs to be seen. It is not a beautiful film. You will look for beautiful frames in vain. It’s an ugly film, it is not aesthetically pleasing. But neither is the subject matter. What Wang Bing shows shouldn’t and cannot be made aesthetically pleasing. It’s a simple document that asks to be taken as it is; raw, brutal, ugly.

Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory

In a previous post I mentioned my own personal experience with slow films in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder. Given the comments I had received after publishing that specific post, it seems as though I’m not the only one who, consciously or unconsciously, uses or used slow films in order to calm down, to soothe, to work through traumatic events. Slow films allowed me to breathe. They gave me the chance to think, to take my time, and, most important of all, to “realise”; realise what is happening in front of me, something I couldn’t do in real life at the time because my senses were repeatedly overstimulated. You can read all details about the link between Slow Cinema and trauma here.

In my post-PhD life I’m discovering more relations between slowness and memory, and I find the role (cinematic) slowness is playing in regards to working through trauma increasingly intriguing. It started off with my finding a theatre play by the Belgian theatre group GROUPOV. Just imagine, a five-hour theatre play about the genocide in Rwanda, with the beginning nothing but a forty minute long testimony of a genocide survivor. The sheer overall length of the play exceeds public expectations. It is not a theatre play you go see to entertain yourself. You go there, perhaps, because you feel a responsibility. Or because you’re simply interested. But you certainly don’t go see this in order “to have fun”. Now, this five-hour play stunned me. I watched parts of it on YouTube and read whatever I could about it. It made waves when it premiered in Liège, Belgium in 2000.

In the context of the genocide in Rwanda (1994), scholar Alexandre Dauge-Roth has proposed a thoroughly striking argument, which I couldn’t help but link to (cinematic) slowness or long duration. Dauge-Roth argues that cultural expectations may silence victims of genocide, war, and other traumatic events. This isn’t just about state-sponsored trauma and terror. We’re also speaking of individual trauma; sexual abuse, rape, attempted murder, loss of family members etc

For the sake of length (what irony!) and because I’m working on an article on this subject, which prevents me from going into too much detail, I’m simplifying the argument here. Most vital in any case here is that we have very much grown used to the way stories are told. Just take the resistance to long films such as those by Lav Diaz. We are not used to films of six hours running time or more. A nice, concise ninety minute film is just about right. Make it two hours at most. Already at school, I was taught that a story needs to have a three act structure, with an introduction, a climax and everything. These are standard characteristics of narratives, even today, when arthouse films try to break through this tradition.

This tradition is exactly what may silence victim-survivors, argues Dauge-Roth. He doesn’t mention long duration as such. But it becomes clear that this is one vital characteristic which is missing in current representations of trauma. It was a major force in my work on Lav Diaz and his treatment of post-trauma on-screen. Then there was the theatre play, and Wang Bing’s three-hour film Fengming. Interestingly, they all take their time in exploring trauma. They allow victims to take as much time as they want and need.

Of course, for everyone who has been through a traumatic event, the experience is individual. I cannot oversimplify and approach every traumatic text in the same way. However, there seems to be a relation between films of long duration and the investigation of trauma. The problem we face nowadays is that the tradition of storytelling challenges (post-)trauma. Trauma is a-temporal. It doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Nor is it necessarily something you can squeeze into a nine-minute film. Nor does it follow a typical three act structure. Traumatic events are remembered in the time the survivor needs, and in a fashion that the survivor finds appropriate. This very often clashes with people’s expectations; it clashes with standards, with traditions, and is therefore often rejected by listeners. As a survivor you can tell that your story somehow “doesn’t fit”, which may lead to being rejected…which overall causes a silencing of the traumatic experience in public discourse.

I not only generalise here. I also use my own experience, having had to tell people in every single detail about what happened to me a couple years ago. This took an immense amount of time, and wasn’t at all linear. I think my way of remembering defied all classical structures, which is why a lot of people turned their back on me. We have created a net of tight expectations as to what is allowed and in what way we should tell our stories, or in what way we should write about it, or even make films about it. This adds to the already suffocating life of trauma-survivors. To me, personally, Slow Cinema or films with long duration, directors who engage in those films, are those who alleviate this silence, who can genuinely contribute to cultural memory, and this is exactly where I’m headed with my new project – the clash between expectations and silencing, and how artists can intervene, and the ways in which duration can tackle the silence imposed by society. Very excited by this actually!

Wang Bing – A filmmaker in today’s China (2014)

I quite like how much material there is in France about Chinese director Wang Bing. I had always thought that he was as invisible academically as is Lav Diaz, but that isn’t the case at all. He is very much so in the English-language world. But France proves itself to be a hub for good literature on slow-film directors. At least something good that has come out of my moving away from the UK! 🙂

The book Wang Bing : Un cinéaste en Chine aujourd’hui (2014) is the result of a symposium held at Aix Marseille University. Despite is having its root in an academic symposium, the book is written for the general public. It is not a book which only film students would understand. It is not tirelessly theoretical either. It’s a joy to read, in fact, and it opens up the oeuvre of Wang Bing to whoever is interested, professional filmmaker or lay film viewer. What is particularly interesting are the interviews that have been conducted with the director. It’s not so much interviews even, they are more three conversations. I learned with Diaz, whom I interviewed for over three hours at the Locarno Film Festival in 2014, that this is how you get the most interesting facts out of a filmmaker, and this seems to be the case with Wang Bing, too. The book opens with the first interview which was conducted in summer 2013, and ends with a third one which had been conducted concerning Wang Bing’s Til Madness Do Us Part (2014).

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The first interview tells you a lot about Wang Bing as a person and as a director. It fits very well into my research of filmmakers (with a particular focus on slow film directors) telling silenced histories, histories which are not in school books or in official discourses. I know that Filipino director Raya Martin pointed out just how important this is to him. Wang Bing himself wasn’t aware of the dark history of his country. His work on The Ditch (2010) and Fengming, for example, stems from a book of testimonies he had been given. He read the book in one go on a flight to Paris. After that he noticed that he didn’t know his country. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard several filmmakers saying this, and it’s this not-knowing which leads to investigative feature and non-fiction films the way we see it in Wang Bing’s films, but also in Lav Diaz’s or Raya Martin’s.

Wang Bing often works clandestinely, which gives him the freedom he needs to make the films he wants to make. He points out repeatedly that going the official way in China would mean he couldn’t make any films. His small digital camera gives him the chance to go out and film when he wants. Having read this book, I understand that Wang Bing’s work is very organic. If something strikes him, he immediately goes out to shoot. Over and over again, he praises the digital revolution, which has helped not only him but many filmmakers around the world, especially those living in poor and remote areas.

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The three interviews plus the one conducted with the director’s producer Lihong Kim gives a detailed and very interesting insight into the director’s work. On top of that, for further contextualisation, the editors of the book have included, for instance, letters written by Jiabiangou prisoners which have then been used by Wang Bing for his film The Ditch. In two chapters, Wang Bing can express himself, which is great. There is a real collaboration apparent between the editors of the book and the filmmaker, something I value a lot. Especially now, after having read that Wang Bing initially received no money at all from the distribution of Tie XI Qu (2003) in France, a shameful and shocking practice (I’ve been told that this has changed in the last couple years and that the director is finally getting paid). Anyway, Wang Bing wrote a chapter on the image as evidence of the real. He speaks about two photographs from Jiabiangou he has been given, photographs which impressed him and which he used for The Ditch and his larger project on the history of the camp. The chapter is a poetic meditation on those images and the story they tell.

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The second chapter in which Wang Bing was involved is a thoroughly interesting one, because it is a project description of a film he hasn’t been able to finish yet, because of a lack of funding for the post-production. I’m very interested in this project because it feeds into my research into the concentrationary, which I discovered in the context of Lav Diaz’s films. The film’s working title is Past in the Presence Tense. As far as I can tell from the director’s project description, it’s going to be a film with a running time of eight hours or more. It is part of the filmmaker’s investigation into the history of labour camps in China, and is supposed to contain primarily interviews, possibly in the ways we have seen in Fengming, a Chinese memoir (2007). Wang Bing intends to create the most comprehensive history of Jiabiangou on screen. This sounds like a superb and very important subject. Sadly enough, the funding is missing and I wonder whether something could be done, and if it’s crowdfunding by is supporters. This sounds like a project that must be done by all means.

There’s plenty more good stuff in the book. The editors have managed to create a comprehensive work that is faith- and truthful to the director, who himself is involved in the project. There is material on Wang Bing’s use of space and time; on his desire to investigate a China he doesn’t know; on his tendency to show people on the margins of society; on his interest in showing the body, the human being, the way it moves, the way it struggles; and on the importance of being a mere observer. The book is slim but it is full of insights on the Chinese director, one of the most interesting personalities in current independent world cinema. Highly recommended (if you can read French!).

Ta’ang – Wang Bing (2016)

I’m on a Wang Bing roll at the moment. I have finally found the time to see his work, and all kinds of things run through my head at the moment. Ta’ang, un peuple en exil, entre Chine et Birmanie is Wang Bing latest film. Again a documentary, a form of cinema he is specialised in. Again, it is a political film. Again, he gives those on the margin of society a voice.  In Ta’ang I can see his patience for just being with his “subjects”, for listening, for waiting. And I haven’t even seen his 14-hour masterpiece yet.

Ta’ang is part of a growing work on refugees. Only recently have I seen the Berlinale winner Fire At Sea by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, a film set on the island of Lampedusa. There is also Mediterranea by Jonas Carpignano which comes to mind, equally a depiction of refugees in their search for a safe place, away from war, away from oppression. There is a refugee situation over on the other half of the planet, too, but this is hardly ever mentioned in our spheres. Wang Bing’s new film, as one example, is a look into a fraction of what is happening daily on the border between Burma and China.

Wang very much relies on our interest and openness. Similar to Lav Diaz, he gives us very little background information about what we are about to see. There is a short text at the beginning of the film, but it gives us the basics. Nothing more, nothing less. If you want to engage with the film, you need to do more than see the images. You see what you know, it is said. If you don’t know anything about the Ta’ang, the images will give you little information about them. They are, as I have already noticed in Wang’s Fengming, rather dispassionate. The director refrains from framing scenes in a certain way in order to make you feel something. I could be wrong, of course, but I can’t help the feeling that this is the most neutral documentary I have ever seen. Nothing is ever entirely neutral. Not even a documentary, which, I believe, is supposed to show its subject unbiased. But Ta’ang gets pretty close.

Wang and Diaz are very much alike, but the bias is one thing which differs in their films. I see this clearly only now that I have dived into Wang’s films. In certain cases, such as parts of Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Diaz follows a very similar path. He tries to be as objective as possible. As he said in an interview somewhere, he wanted to be journalistic in his depiction of the aftermath of typhoon Reming. But he did construct a feature film around the event in the end, which has implications on how the viewer reads the material. And then there is a shot in From What Is Before, a low level canted angle, something I had never seen before in Diaz’s work. A canted angle is never neutral.

You won’t find this in Wang’s Ta’ang. The camera tends to be on eye-level with the subjects it films. There aren’t any fancy aesthetics. If you love the photographic frames in slow films the way I do, you will be put off by the film’s look. But this brings me back to what I thought was important in terms of Fengming and her testimony: every aesthetical decision is an ethical decision. Rosi’s Fuocoammare aetheticises suffering and death. This isn’t the case with Ta’ang. You won’t find pretty frames. You won’t find something aesthetically pleasing. Wang shows the situation as it is: dirty, ugly, a disgrace. The Ta’ang are forced into nomadism. They left their homes in winter 2015 as armed conflict broke out in the border region between Burma and China.

What we see is their daily life. These refugees either sit and wait in makeshift tents until they can go back home. Or they move from one supposedly safe place to another all the while we hear gunshots and artillery fire in the background. I would say that a good half of the film is set at night, around a camp fire or candles. Or even torches. Maybe it only felt as if half of the film was set in the dark. Which brings me to an interesting difference between Wang and Diaz. Ta’ang‘s two-and-a-half hours feel incredibly dense. It felt more difficult to sit through them than through eight hours Lav Diaz. I had a similar impression after Diaz’s Storm Children which was much shorter than his usual film work. But it was a documentary, and an over two-hour long documentary without even a loose narrative but a simple depiction of daily life puts your patience to the test.

This isn’t a bad thing at all. I find it quite an interesting thought that feature films are easier to sit through. We’re habitual people. We’re used to a narrative. To sit through eight hours is hard work, but as long as there is a narrative that progresses and you have something that vaguely resembles a three-act structure, it is doable. As I keep saying, for most Lav Diaz films I didn’t mind the running time at all. Wang Bing seems to be a wholly different arena in my slow-film engagement. His films seem to come even closer to real life, both in terms of time and story. Besides, you’re stuck with the images of, say, a woman boiling potatoes. Because Wang does not focus on pretty shots, there is nothing you can admire while the actual action happening in front perhaps bores you. You have to stick with it. Several slow-film directors give you this “escape”, if you need it. Wang forces you to be with the characters, to be with their plight.

I start to become a fan of Wang’s work. His films are challenging, more than other slow films I have sat through. But this is precisely why they make me curious. Again, just as with Diaz’s work, I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain what I feel intellectually, but there is something that I’ll try to follow the next time I’m watching a Wang Bing film. There is something somewhere. I just don’t know yet what it is.

Fengming, a Chinese memoir – Wang Bing (2007)

It must have been a year or two that I watched my very first Wang Bing film. Stupidly enough, I chose The Ditch, a feature film which I know wasn’t really his thing. It was a good film, but didn’t quite give me a sense of the director’s brilliance. Now that I have more time for actual film viewing beyond PhD research, I’d like to return to Wang Bing’s oeuvre because I’m aware that there’s plenty to see there, not only in terms of the number of films he has directed. I mean that in terms of content as well.

Fengming, a Chinese memoir had been on my list since the PhD. I knew that it was a three-hour interview with a woman who had survived a labour camp under Mao. I thought I could bring it together with my work on “the concentrationary” in Lav Diaz’s films, but I could never make it work. Now I have a clear mind and a new angle from which I’d like to see the film. So I returned to it last week and was taken by it. Parts of Fengming’s testimony became, in effect, The Ditch, an almost word-for-word translation of her testimony into a feature film. I haven’t read up on why the director choose to do so. I don’t think he has done it with his other documentaries. This one stands out because Fengming is not just a documentary, not just a testimony on screen. It has taken on a life beyond that and unraveled as a feature film three years later.

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In some ways, perhaps, his feature film might draw in more people because there is, quite obviously, more happening, even though it is nevertheless a rather slow and austere film. Fengming, on the other hand, is quite a difficult film to sit through. It is an exercise in listening, something I believe we have forgotten but something that is so vital when it comes to testimony. Wang Bing doesn’t try to hide the nature of testimony. He’s aware that it usually comes in all details. Fengming starts by saying “I should start at the beginning”, and so she does. She not only tells us about her experience in the labour camp under Mao, but also explains the conditions that have led to her imprisonment. With this, the film makes explicitly clear that in order to prevent those things from happening again, it is not enough to know only about the actual atrocities. It is important to know how these things came into place in the first place, how they could happen, what the societal and political structures were like at the time. Only then can we draw comparisons to similar situations happening nowadays.

Wang Bing sets up his camera in Fengming’s living room without ever moving it. There are few and rare changes in shot distance, ie he shifts from a medium shot to a medium close-up, but he keeps to to the bare minimum. And because he does so, and because there is little relation between the shift in shot distance and what Fengming says (as is generally the case in popular cinema where shifts in shot distance are a cue for something important), these shifts function as ruptures. They’re startling. I couldn’t figure out why Wang Bing initiated those shifts. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to figure it out either. But I believe that they disrupt the actual viewing of a testimony in progress.

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From the beginning, Wang Bing sets out to record a testimony without interfering in the actual process. During the process, the daylight faded, and so does Fengming’s face. It is only after quite some time that Wang Bing asks Fengming to turn on the light. If Fengming needs to go to the bathroom, she does so, all while the camera keeps rolling. If the phone rings (or a door bell?), then Fengming leaves the room to check. Again, all while the camera keeps rolling. It looks and feels very natural, until the director cuts…either away from Fengming or in order to change the shot distance. It could easily be because of technical constraints, but I think Wang Bing is working in digital, so the length of film at least should not have confined him to shooting for only ten minutes.

Fengming isn’t an easy film. It requires you to sit for three hours and listen to a single person. It could as well be an audio book, and I would be inclined to say that people would find an audio version of the film much easier because they can do other things while listening to Fengming. But this isn’t really the point. This isn’t the point of testimony. There needs to be a listener present for testimony to be help- and useful. With “present”, I mean physically and mentally present. There is a screen between Fengming and us, but if we sit down with her, I see us as taking part in her testimony. We have a responsibility to listen, to be there to take part in this process of remembering and keeping it alive for future generations.

There is obviously more to say about the film. Plenty more, which is perhaps surprising given that it’s so austere. But I’m developing an article at the moment and don’t want to go into too much detail here right now. More will follow soon!