In 2004, Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing embarked on an ambitious project: an extensive marshalling together of personal testimonies from survivors of a Mao-era Chinese labour “re-education” camp on the edge of the Gobi Desert — the notorious Jiabiangou, just one complex in a network designed to punish those persecuted during the anti-rightist campaign. Starting with the documentary, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), this long-term project has gone on to inspire Wang’s only fiction film to date in The Ditch (2010). In addition to the hundreds of hours of footage he has shot and collated, he’s fashioned a short called West of the Tracks (2014) and now the titanic Dead Souls (2018). A film that operates and elongates with the aim of inscribing into the historical record what the state had gone to great lengths to blot: the experiences of those who survived and those who starved to death within the confines of this rehabilitation-cum-death sentence.
But what were the charges? This question sits at the roots of Dead Souls, and its 8 hour and 15 minute commitment to an oral history devoted less to detailing grand tectonics of history and more to individual responses to this calamity and its existentially debilitating effect. The latter diffused throughout the film’s nearly twenty interviews – involving only men, save for a few, albeit pivotal, spouses and relatives. They were condemned as ‘rightists’, supposed saboteurs accused of harbouring conservative beliefs and wielding them with the intention of upending the state apparatus.
In reality, they were merely doctors, teachers, journalists, civil servants and committed Communists, turned into straw dogs by the mainland Chinese state in order to explain away the failure of “The Great Leap Forward” — a series of policies implemented between 1958 and 1961 with the expressed intention of radically collectivising agriculture and rapidly escalating industrialisation. What for other countries took decades was expected to be accomplished in a handful of years but, due to unreachable quotas, pseudoscientific farming methods, corruption and a spate of unusually poor weather, it led to a nationwide famine that, according to even the most conservative, government-approved estimates, claimed 15 million lives. The actual figure is likely double.
The film’s scope, though, is focused far less on detailing these tectonics in an easily digestible narrative and more on relaying the experiences of a relatively few individuals from which the macro is inferred. For, as it is iterated time and time again, the aforementioned politicking translated as something profoundly Kafka-esque for the three thousand ‘ultra-rightists’ from the Gansu Province who were sent to Jiabiangou and a gruelling but largely survivable state of affairs. That is, until the famine peaked in 1959. In response, the state stopped sending rations and the men were expected to live exclusively off the fruits of their labour. The inevitable consequence being that they starved, until in 1961 when the camp was closed. By then less than five hundred were left alive.
The interviewees are a panoply of scars masked as eccentricities. An abundance of strange smiles, unexpected pauses and trembling hands.
Out of the fraction we see elucidate their experiences on camera, there’s rarely tear or a breakdown. Instead, they recount with all the surface signals of what advanced years and years of repression does to bottled-up trauma. For outside of the actual word for word of their memories, the interviewees are a panoply of scars masked as eccentricities. An abundance of strange smiles, unexpected pauses and trembling hands. It’s evident in the comportment of one participant in particular, named Cao Zhonghua. He offers up recollections like the slow death of his younger brother; who was also a prisoner and returning home alone to find his family and village decimated with the few survivors deranged, consuming bark stripped from trees or flesh from the bodies piling in the streets. All the while he intersperses the horrific tale with a hollow chuckle. A vestige of this past madness still extant but moulded in accordance to the man’s affable presentation. This focus on the granular, on each and every expression, and the multitudes within, is aided by Wang’s form, which in this film especially is extremely minimal. For apart from rare breaks away from the interview format, almost every shot is still or in static, yet shaky, handheld with the occasional cut for an extreme close-up. When he does pan or track it is reactive, to follow an unexpected move from his otherwise housebound, or even bedridden, subjects, or to pick on the surroundings for a character colouring detail.
It’s possible that this sparing use of an already spartan toolkit is functional. For example, there is a strong sense that these interviews were shot in a couple, or even in one, session – potentially to avoid duress that repeated takes would inflict – whenever the camera wobbles, the soundtrack pops, a question is flubbed and an answer repeated. Wang’s independence is certainly a factor and in turn reinforced by the underground nature of this project, which among many other important consequences means that he is working with next to no capital and with only a two-person crew or, quite often, just himself. Yet these ‘limitations’ and ‘accidents’ also work in accordance to Wang’s approach. Which places the subjects and their stories atop a totem pole above every other element. Leading to a high level of repetition, a string of commonalities, starting with the first interview and ending with the last, that includes a morass of dates and place names. That the key to survival was temporary escape, or kitchen duty, and specific qualities of their suffering including the indignity of cave dwelling, the gruesome details of makeshift surgery and the desperate consumption of leaves and human waste.
Yet it would be misrepresentative to deem the film artless and only concerned with fulfilling the basic requirements of reportage. The repetitions for one are Wang, the historian, amassing and then proofing his evidence through corroboration. While for Wang, the artist, as if the two were extricable, it hammers home the mind-numbing effect of spending three years in a hell that was also extremely monotonous.
Wang makes interesting formal choices too, in the way the interviews find their final shape and size. For each average around 20 to 30 mins, culled from original footage that amounted to 2 or 3 hours at the very least. Wherever a block of time has been excised it is signified by a quick cut to black. Yet he often forgoes timesaving so to keep in meaningful longueurs. Extended bouts of dead air wherein the talking stalls in order to make way for the frustrated internal search for somebody-or-other’s name, or when the subject simply does not know where to go next and so Wang leaves them suspended until they continue. If not, he himself finds and pulls on the next thread.
It is in these stultified moments that the interviewees’ precarity and their senior status is highlighted and in turn, underlines what even for such a long and slow film is a sense of urgency. Wang is archiving experiences that have never been properly considered (discussion of the camps in China today is still largely verboten) and will soon disappear when the individuals themselves expire. This the film addresses directly with many of the interviews ending with a cut to black and a title card informing us that the person has since passed away.
That their souls are dead, not just their vessels, is key for it speaks to the nature of perishing under a persecution that remains taboo in China and an obscurity elsewhere.
Even the structure at large is governed by the foreknowledge of finitude. For rather than interweaving footage, the film moves in forwarding strides with each interview playing out in full before moving onto the next. Which means that, for the most part, once a particular person has said their bit, they are gone. There are, however, exceptions; when they reappear it is extremely potent because of the scope of the production, which lasted twelve years, from 2005 to 2017. It forces to the front the decades-worth deprivation of vindication. None more so than at the 3-hour mark, when we see Cao and another survivor, Chen Zonghai, again during one of the film’s few but significant breaks from the sedentary.
It’s a trip that they and Wang take to survey a mass grave, or rather what remains of one, for the site was levelled in the 80s. In an act of terrible irony where what was once dry and arid, and the endpoint for thousands expected to cultivate it, was later irrigated to make viable farmland out of their bones. Cao and Chen were last seen in 2016 and now here they are in 2005, noticeably younger and more mobile. The difference is incredibly moving, not only to see the ageing process played out in reverse — and so to be reminded of its inevitable conclusion — but to also see how much the injustices of the anti-rightist campaign and the hush-up that followed has hijacked and dictated their lives. For it is already been stated that this discovery and all their effort, preceding and subsequent, will eventually amount to a monument that will be dismantled by the authorities, a mere few days after its assembly.
But what then, of the dead themselves? They are front and centre in the title, which Wang gleaned from a scene charting the funeral procession and then burial of one of the survivors. The ceremony begins with the departed’s son reading out a eulogy wherein he rails against the abuse and then subsequent demonisation of his father, his fellow survivors and those ‘dead souls’ that never made it out of Jiabiangou. That their souls are dead, not just their vessels, is key for it speaks to the nature of perishing under persecution that remains taboo in China and obscurity elsewhere.
Where their legacies are victim to the decay of memory, torn apart in a sparagmos to maintain a national lie and buried underneath the sheer tonnage of trauma borne by those still breathing. Their appearances then within the film are fragmentary. Reduced to names linked to descriptions of death with the minutiae that define every human being forgotten. In an official capacity, they are nothing more than makeshift gravestones. One of which is unearthed but, on closer inspection, the name scrawled on it is illegible. But only just. So that even though the identification is impossible, a vague yet pronounced impression of a human being has been imbibed. Along with the psychic and physical weight of their loss and the sense, when only their family name, a very common one, is readable, that those that are left are picking at fossilised drops in a dead ocean.
Since there are no archival images of the camp, bar a single photo offered up from the personal collection of a remorseful yet distanced former camp guard, the only imagistic evidence of their deaths are their bones. They first appear amid the exploration of the mass graves. But only sparingly. It is not until the final fifteen minutes that they proliferate. In footage shot in 2012, chronologically a midpoint thus drawing together the film together with a visit to the site of Mingshui, the deadliest section of the complex. Wang, alone, tears through this grey, stony landscape, scattered with femurs, spinal columns and skulls, intact and weathered white, which gaze up at the lens. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is excoriated by raging desert winds and Wang’s panting as he marches up hills, reminding us not only of that urgency but of the contrast between the noise of the living, his exhalations and the survivor’s recollections, and the silence of the dead.