Wang Bing Gives Voice to “Re-education” Camp Survivors

Posted May 7, 2018 5:14 p.m. EDT

“Well, I guess I’ll start at the beginning.”

The opening words spoken in Wang Bing’s film “He Fengming: A Chinese Memoir” are humble ones. But what follows is a record of cataclysmic times in postwar China, recounted by He, a survivor of forced labor camps. She methodically speaks of how it happened, how she was separated from her husband, all while seated in her cluttered, dimly lit, utterly ordinary home.

The result is by turns shattering and sedate — a testimony that one critic called “both a cry of pain and a sigh of relief.”

“He Fengming” screened at Cannes in 2007, the same year as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “No Country for Old Men.” Now Wang returns to the festival with a work that gives voice to more living veterans of history like He. “Dead Souls,” his new documentary, has its world premiere this week, clocking in at 8 hours, 15 minutes.

“The only objective is to obtain, from their memories, the knowledge of the people who can no longer speak of what they went through,” Wang said in an interview.

The subjects of “Dead Souls” were condemned in the Communist Party’s “anti-rightist” campaign in the 1950s. Like He, they were imprisoned, enslaved and starved in “re-education” camps like Jiabiangou in the Gobi Desert.

“Dead Souls” is only the latest film in an ambitious, outsize oeuvre that seems to take Frederick Wiseman as the bench mark for capturing the experience of a nation.

Wang’s previous works include his gargantuan chronicle of obsolescent factories and their workers, “West of the Tracks,” which The New York Times called a “nine-hour masterpiece.” His 14-hour installation “Crude Oil” tracked the process of oil extraction. “Mrs. Fang,” his most recent, is a comparatively brief (86 minutes) but devastating elegy of an older woman’s final days.

Wang sits at the pinnacle of the Chinese documentary groundswell that arose with the country’s social and economic upheaval in the 1990s. Last year, he won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno film festival, bestowed by a jury led by filmmaker Olivier Assayas. His work has premiered in Berlin, Venice (garnering another prize) and Documenta (which has also commissioned projects of his), with retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou and the Harvard Film Archive.

“Wang brings us inside the world he is chronicling so thoroughly that, if we watch it in one go, we are apt to lose track of what things outside are like,” critic Luc Sante wrote of Wang’s “epic and intimate” cinema. “'Fengming’ stands alongside first-person precedents like Shirley Clarke’s ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967) and Errol Morris’ ‘The Fog of War’ (2004) in its ability to wrest powerful effects from the deceptively simple setup of a lone raconteur,” critic Ed Halter wrote. Other admirers include filmmakers Jia Zhangke, Arnaud Desplechin and Pedro Costa.

For his part, Wang can sound very modest about his continuing document of Chinese history.

“In China, my life is like that of all the other normal Chinese,” Wang said. “I am one of the many from the normal class. So I filmed these people.”

Wang was born in the north of China in 1967, after the events chronicled in “Dead Souls.” Initially studying photography, he went on to the Beijing Film Academy, part of the same generation as Jia (who also has a film at Cannes this year). Wang gorged himself on directors such as Antonioni, Bergman and Tarkovsky (partly thanks to a professor who brought thousands of videotapes from abroad), with Pasolini close to his heart.

“West of the Tracks,” with its view of Chinese heavy industry in decline, put a spotlight on Wang in 2003. The film announced an artist with a mission to catch major epochs and small moments before they disappeared.

“Dead Souls” is no different. Shot from 2005 to 2017, it covers most of China’s provinces and entailed visits to more than 120 survivors of re-education camps. Wang’s goal was to preserve memories before they disappeared, in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s monumental “Shoah.”

“What happened in the Jiabiangou labor camps was a page unknown in the Chinese history,” Wang said of the project, which at an early stage was titled “Past in the Present.” “Of course, it’s not only a tragedy of China, but also one of the numerous terrible catastrophes in human history.”

Hard-hitting subject matter can sometimes be a problem for filmmakers facing censorship in China, but this does not seem to have been an obstacle for Wang.

“I’ve been free to shoot my films in China,” he said, explaining that the low commercial value of his work kept him from submitting them for theatrical release there. (“Mrs. Fang” will screen at next month’s Shanghai International Film Festival.)

“Dead Souls” finds Wang again embracing the immersive approach that has yielded memorable results: the touching and magical fireside moments with migrants in “Ta’ang,” or the unnervingly free wanderings of children left to fend for themselves in “Three Sisters.” It’s a form of cinema that begins to feel more like living with the people on screen than merely watching them. For those ready to commit the time and attention, “Dead Souls” will be an oasis of focus amid the many distractions of Cannes.

With his typical cool understatement, Wang said: “I don’t have particular expectations from the audience. I hope this film can hold the content of the stories I shot. In other words, there is a lot of content in this film. That’s why it’s long.”