This Grey Zone: Wang Bing Discusses "Dead Souls"

An interview with the Chinese documentarian about "Dead Souls", his eight-hour film about a horrific, suppressed period of China's history.
Annabel Brady-Brown

Dead Souls

In 1957, the Communist Party of China launched an Anti-Rightist Campaign that sought to purge the so-called ‘rightists’ from its country. Over the next three years, this conveniently ambiguous term was largely used to persecute intellectuals who had voiced criticisms of the regime during the brief period of ‘openness’ referred to as the Hundred Flowers Movement (1956-1957). To this day, the Campaign is only partially documented: official government lists reveal 558,900 people were accused of being ‘rightists,’ though the real figure is likely up to six times that number. From across Gansu, a province in northwest China, over 3,200 men were sent to a set of appallingly makeshift work camps in the Gobi Desert named Jiabiangou, where they were forced to undergo “ideological re-education through labour.” The vast majority starved to death in horrifying conditions.

Of the approximately 500 men who survived the camps, around 120 were interviewed by Wang Bing, as part of the twelve-year process of making his latest extraordinary documentary epic, Dead Souls. Just under 20 survivors appear in the film. They are almost always filmed in their homes, evoking the locked doors behind which this history has been placed. Clearly in their twilight, many of them passed away during the making of the film. The sense of untold stories being taken to the grave imbues this oral history project with an additional layer of urgency, as it bears witness to the little-told experiences of those held in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps.

Wang has explored this nightmarish chapter before, in his three-hour documentary Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (which screened at Cannes in 2007) and in his 2010 fiction film, The Ditch—the making of which originally spurred his research into the Anti-Rightist Campaign. As the apotheosis of this research, Dead Souls presents a remarkable feat of filmmaking. It continues to enrich, complicate, add nuance and much-needed detail, effectively combating the hegemony of contemporary Chinese history, once referred to by Wang as “the history of a monstrous uniformization of thought.” (It’s little surprise that Pedro Costa refers to him as a friend.)

In Dead Souls, this complexity is achieved through the anecdotal flood of tiny, unsensational details—the date palm leaves that prisoners ground to make their paltry gruel; the pinch of flour a widow received to feed her hungry child; the state-sanctioned destruction of a memorial stele, as well as the bridge leading to that memorial, barring mourners from having a place to grieve. These morsels of information are as evocative as the harrowingly matter-of-fact accounts of cannibalism; starved, bloated limbs; and the banality of constant death.

The sense that this history is too vast, is impossible to contain within a single film, is further suggested by the eight-and-a-bit-hours running time of Dead Souls. The longest film to ever be included in the Official Selection at Cannes, it screened in two parts, with an interval. And yet, as with much of Wang’s intimate and immersive oeuvre, the hours melt away.  

As the generally static-framed, talking-heads testimonies accumulate, the speakers—a cook, a cadre, an escapee, a widow—each add a fascinating and vital dimension to this history. At the same time, their wounded stories frequently echo one another, contradict, backtrack, digress, and overlap. Within this deferential collective retelling, the specifics can be left somewhat blurry. “How many people died?” Wang asks repeatedly, but no one can say. Instead, what emerges is a startling and greater truth that is harder to pinpoint, concerning the gap between history lived and the violence of the blank page.

I spoke briefly to Wang Bing at Cannes after the premiere of his film, about the 12-year process of making Dead Souls, and any possibility of sharing this story in China. 

NOTEBOOK: The majority of the interviews that we see in the film were recorded in 2005. Why did it take so long to make this film? 

WANG BING: It took a long time to find all the people that I wanted to film, and then it took a long time to film them as well. I didn’t take this film lightly. I took my time doing all of the research, and then afterwards, that is when I decided what kind of film I wanted to make. That’s the way I wanted to work on this film. I have a simple and discreet approach. I wanted to spend this long period of time to make the film; I think the topic demanded that I lead a slow process. 

NOTEBOOK: When you found these people, did they want to be found? Did they want to share their stories?

WANG: Some of them refused to be filmed, they’re not in the film. That was their choice, and so of course I respected it.  

NOTEBOOK: Was this because of any lingering stigma that comes from being in the camps, from having been accused of being a ‘rightist’?

WANG: You really quickly realize that all of the people in the film, they were passive victims—they were designated by others, stigmatized and blamed by others—but that they don’t believe that they themselves did anything wrong. I understand of course if they don't want to talk about these experiences, if they still feel they need to protect themselves.

NOTEBOOK: The title, Dead Souls, has a double meaning. It can refer to those who died in the camps as well as those who survived but who remain deeply traumatized by their experiences, living like, shall we say, zombies. 

WANG: The people we talk about in the film who are dead, well, they’re dead—but yes, the people who tell the stories, they are also dead somewhere inside. This film is maybe about the realm of dead-ness, this grey zone.

NOTEBOOK: You accumulated around 600 hours of footage for this film. How did you go about editing such an immensity of material? 

WANG: My first way of dividing the rushes was through location. I grouped together all the people who were in the same geographical place—because they were coming from different places across China. So at first I focused on that shared location. For example, from the third hour of the film until the eighth hour, it is all about that one place, because the people all come from that one city. That gave me a simple structure to focus on. 

NOTEBOOK: How long did it take?

WANG: My way of editing, my process, is quite simple. I work on the edit and I take decisions only once. In general, I don't go back and forth. I edit in one go. The image editing alone took five months. Then sound, titles, all the post-production process for the film took about eight months in total.

NOTEBOOK: Going back to the idea of being a discreet filmmaker, you rarely appear in your films. Sometimes we see a shadow on a wall, for example, or maybe we hear a cough, but usually that’s it. Yet in Dead Souls you appear in the frame a number of times, peripherally at the start and then quite dominantly towards the end of the film when you’re speaking to the cadre. And we really feel your reactions, your presence, when you’re walking across the site, stopping abruptly whenever you see more bones. Why did you feel the need to be more of a presence in this film? 

WANG: The reason I didn't appear in my earlier films is really simple; it’s because I would make them alone and so I would have to carry the camera—so then I wouldn't appear onscreen. This time, I was lucky enough to have someone to film with me. And also in this case, I really wanted to be able to focus on the interviews, to be able to receive the answers as best I could, so I asked someone else to film, and as a result I then appear.

NOTEBOOK: What is the Chinese government’s official stance on this period of history today?

WANG: There was official rehabilitation of those people in 1987-1991, so the anti-rightist campaigns are not a secret. But what happened really, and how these people died is still not told. We still don’t know what happened exactly. 

NOTEBOOK: Sharing this story seems so important—but it’s unlikely the film will be shown in China.

WANG: None of my films have shown in China except for this year, for the first time, my last film, Mrs. Fang, will play at the Shanghai International Film Festival. But otherwise none of my other films have been shown, so I’ve kind of grown used to it. [Shrugs]

NOTEBOOK: Is there a chance Dead Souls could also play in Shanghai? 

WANG: I don’t think they’ve seen it, and they haven’t asked to see it either, so probably not. [Laughs] I am only one single individual. There is only so much I can do. Being able to do what I want, being able to make the films I want to make, I’m already quite happy with that. I try not to worry about things that are beyond my control or that I am not able to do anything about, like the distribution in China.

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