Welfare – Frederick Wiseman (1975)

In past years, several people have pointed out the work by Frederick Wiseman to me, in particular whenever I spoke of Lav Diaz and his rather long (feature) films, which explore the history and trauma of a country and society in depth. I have to admit that now that I have seen my first Wiseman film, I don’t quite see a relation to Slow Cinema the way I feel it, or would perhaps define it (if I had words for it). Nevertheless, there are some specifics that are quite interesting to consider in terms of slow film, perhaps also, yes, in relation to the films of Lav Diaz.

First of all, Welfare is an almost three-hour long documentary. Indeed, this goes against the usual perception of a documentary. There are exceptions like Adam Curtis’ pieces, but overall documentaries (just like feature films) tend to have industry-imposed time limits. Wiseman doesn’t seem to care about this, and this allows him to go into such depth that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Welfare is a long-form documentary that has a scope similar to slow films in that he shows vertical time. You might remember from earlier posts that I spoke about horizontal and vertical time, the former being a simple advancement of the story without going into too much depth. A vertical treatment of a subject is based on the director’s taking his time. It’s about feeling, psychological depth. It’s about the character first, the story comes second. Vertical time is usually something poetic, which you might think isn’t present in Wiseman’s film. And yet, you will find everything that is characteristic of a vertical story treatment.

Welfare places emphasis on those who are seeking help and feel like hamsters in a bureaucratic wheel. In several long-takes – I believe one is even longer than 10 minutes which is unusual for a documentary – he films conversations between those who seek help and those who decide about whether they can eat on that same day, or whether they have a place to sleep. Some conversations, cases, problems, feel endless, repetitive, often painful. But Wiseman keeps filming. He wants to get to the bottom of the pain that is so often forgotten in bureaucratic systems. This is the vertical you can usually only see in slow films. It’s vertical time that comes to the fore and it is because of this vertical time that Welfare has such a strong effect on the viewer. It’s like reading an 800 page novel and you get to know your character in such a way that you really identify with him or her. You know every single trait of that character, you have time to draw parallels between you and him/her, you actually have time to consider what’s happening to the character.

This is Welfare. It’s an 800 page novel. Perhaps it’s not slow, but it’s detailed, focused on individuals who are usually marginalised and forgotten. It’s vertical in its treatment of the subject, or rather subjects. The film is not only about the failing welfare system in America. The documentary shows several other facets of society, amongst them blatant racism. It is a portrait of America in the 1970s, and, perhaps crucially, it is a portrait of America today, because as far as we can gather from news items, very little has changed. The end of the film is quite interesting. It hit me and hurt me. Having lost his comfortable job with an income of $20,000 a year plus more for other work, having lost all his research work (stolen from him), his accommodation, having fallen from a hardworking successful member of society to a homeless man who needs to steal in order to survive, all of this after a stay in hospital and being told afterwards that he would no longer be able to work – this man, this character who sums up everything we have seen in the previous two hours plus, predicts that there wouldn’t be a United States of America anymore at the end of the 1980s if nothing changed. People would leave the sinking ship. It would be interesting to see the same documentary playing out in 2017…

Welfare is not a slow film. This much I can say. Nevertheless, the link to slow films and in particular to films by Lav Diaz, who uses long duration (and cinematic slowness) for an in-depth exploration of an individual’s pain, is clear. What both Slow Cinema and Frederick Wiseman’s work share is the use of vertical time, of duration, in order to get to the bottom of pain, of despair, of injustice; in order to make the viewer feel this pain, despair and injustice; in order to use their films as a cry for help.

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!