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.

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.