What’s to be done with an almost impossible-to-distribute masterpiece like Wang Bing‘s eight-hour DEAD SOULS? Should it be considered a rara avis of the big screen and keep its public limited or should it become part of the already prominent arthouse scene of the VOD platforms? While the fact that Icarus Films and Grasshopper Film have acquired North American distribution rights to Dead Soul for North America (with a division of the film in three parts) came as a surprise, its limited release status needs to be questioned almost one year later. I do not wish or have the authority to answer these questions here and now, but it’s good to keep in mind that there’s a problem in logistics for Wang Bing’s film and that’s its running time. A dissociation can’t be made between time as form and time as content in DEAD SOULS, since both the director and its subjects are running out of it. They are septuagenarian, octogenarian, even nonagenarian, so very little time is left for them to tell their stories and for Wang Bing to listen. But if Wang got the chance to listen, record and present, he now offers back what a great deal of them lost from the beginning of the film till its screening, namely time – eternal on-screen time, André Bazin’s famous “mummy complex”.
The Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-1957) was a period of liberalization in which Chairman Mao Zedong’ Communist Party of China encouraged its citizens to express their opinion regarding the regime by giving feedback – polemics, critics, recommendation, etc. After a supposedly change of heart influenced by the mid-fifties international communist movement and with all the cards on the table, the Maoist regime started the anti-Rightist campaign – a process of re-education (in reality, eradication) of the former Nationalists (also called “rightists”) citizens and of everybody else who was “anti-revolutionary” . The main target were the intellectuals who were encouraged to speak out during the previous campaign (more details are to be found in transcripts of the Chairman’s famous speech from 1957, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”). Between 550,000 and 1,300,000 people were selected and sent to labor camps in order to re-educate themselves through work.
Wang’s research, which consisted of getting in touch and interviewing 120 survivors of the Jiabiangou set of work camps situated in the province of Gansuand and the Mingshui camp, the last such camp to open (autumn, 1960), resulted in 600 hours of material; 3200 of such “anti-revolutionaries” were sent to these camps, out of which only 500 survived the extremely harsh conditions and lack of food. The final version, almost 500 minute-long, follows the original chronology of the interviews, selected in such a way to deliver a didactic speech which does not aim at being exhaustive. Wang Bing constructs a challenging piece of direct cinema, rarely reframing or using any camera movements whatsoever while interviewing the survivors. His questions indicate that he’s mostly interested in two aspects: the stories of named or anonimous prisoners who passed away during the campaign and the small but crucial details regarding the process of survival.
The first interview, for example, presents survivor Zhou Huinan and his wife, Gao Guifang discussing how the man got to be considered a rightist. Like many others that would follow, he wasn’t anti-Maoist, he voiced his reservations regarding specific practices of the party such as the 5% dogma – Mao’s statement that 5% of the Chinese citizens were wrongdoers and should be reported. As Zhou Huinan explains, if you were unable to find the five percent of wrongdoers from a group, it meant that “you were the conservative rightist”.
The following interview presents Zhou Huinan’s brother, Zhou Zhinan, in a critical state, on what we figure out is his death bed. And so it turns out to be – Zhou Zhinan’s funeral is the first time when the interview pattern is broken. The next such moments would present Wang Bing visiting the site of the Mingshui camp, exploring remnants – of camps, of skeletons, of violence, of history and memory. By these counterpoints, the film creates a tension between the survivors who are interviewed and the ones who didn’t survive and are to be found in these sites,a dynamic between the dead and the dying.
Almost all the interviews are quite intimate – the intimacy of their own home, the intimacy of the family, a set-up which makes the collective trauma of the anti-Rightists campaign (which belongs to the public sphere) seem a private issue that’s to be addressed quietly. Family is a key-concept in the survivors’ testimonies. Being considered a rightist and sent to the camps was a family issue, any death was a tragedy for an entire family and many survivors acknowledge the fact that it was thanks to their family that they survived. Only once Wang Bing chooses to illustrate a story of a deceased camp prisoner, namely that of Pei Zifeng, who was named a rightist in August 1958 and sent to Jiabiangou, where he died two years later. Wang uses o photography of Pei’s family, a transcripted letter and a scan of the original. Once again, the family is addressed as an archive, this time one which can provide material history, not only oral history.
“Cinema can create this illusion of someone being alive, only for the revelation of their death to kick in harder at the end”, noticed film critic Camille Bourgeus in her own review of the film. DEAD SOULS has been justly compared with Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH and Chantal Akerman’s work. In terms of the time-urgency endeavor, Wang’s film has certain similarities with Japanese director Kazuo Hara’s latest film, SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER, in which the revelation of death which Bourgeus points out works the same way on the spectator. Nevertheless, Wang’s approach seems more humanistic and sometimes poetic. “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less”, says Gao Guifang eleven years after being filmed for the first time by Wang Bing. A long shot of her resting in bed follows another death bed which the spectator can sense, covered by the strident sound of a clock ticking.
There’s a certain highly interesting interview, namely the one with Cao Zonghua from 2016. A short moment of complicity leads to his following remarks: “I think that as soon as you come in, they’re watching us. They know you’re coming to my place. As soon as someone comes here they know.” Wang Bing asks him how they watch him. Cao replies “I don’t know, but they know when someone visits me.”. Who are “they”? Is Cao suggesting that he’s stalked by someone or something? It has been speculated for a long time that the anti-Rightists campaign is a sensitive subject for the contemporary CCP leaders and, if I’m allowed further speculation, isn’t the term “re-education camp” highly actual, therefore sensible, especially since 2016? Are the Chinese de-Islamisation camps making their predecessors an unwanted topic?