Dead Souls (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Declan McGrath

Wang Bing interviews survivors of the Jiabiangou re-education farm that operated from 1958–61.

Produced by Serge Lalou, Camille Laemlé, Louise Prince, and Wang Bing; directed by Wang Bing; cinematography by Wang Bing; edited by Catherine Rascon. A three-disc box set, color, 495 min., Mandarin Chinese dialogue with English subtitles, 2018. An
Icarus Films release.

Throughout the eight and a half hours of Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, the only contextual information provided for the viewer is at the very beginning in the form of text. It tells us that between 1958 and 1961 more than 3,200 people charged as “ultrarightists” during the Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957 were sent to Jiabiangou in Northwest China, among other locations, to be re-educated in forced labor camps. Only 500 of those 3,200 survived. Furthermore, during those years, between 550,000 and 1,300,000 Chinese were interned in similar labor camps. That word “between” comprises up to 750,000 unacknowledged souls. By focusing on what happened in Jiabiangou, Wang’s Dead Souls becomes a memorial monument for a multitude mostly forgotten by their government and ignored by world history.

Wang does not sculpt a narrative of events at Jiabiangou out of interviews with decision-makers, historians, or commentators. Such a macroperspective tends to distance us from history as life experienced by ordinary people; and one of Wang’s chief skills as a filmmaker is precisely an extraordinary ability to capture and convey life as experienced by ordinary (mostly marginalized) people. In films such as Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2002), his eight-hour depiction of the residents of a declining industrial area, or Three Sisters (2012), his portrait of siblings left to fend for themselves in an isolated rural village, Wang patiently embeds himself with his subjects and then shares what he witnesses in sympathetically edited films. His viewers are left to construct their own interpretation of the wider political, social, and economic context by observing the everyday experiences of the subjects of his films.

Dead Souls is not strictly observational, in the sense that we do not see its subjects go about their daily lives. For the most part, the film is constructed out of “talking-head” interviews with almost twenty survivors of Jiabiangou. There is nevertheless the same sense here of “being present” as real life unfolds that Wang created in his other films. Rather than cutting between these interviewees, each one is granted their own discrete sequence of between ten to forty minutes, during which the cameraman, for the most part, holds the same frame. Unlike Claude Lanzmann in Shoah (the 550-minute film released in 1985 to which Dead Souls is frequently compared), Wang Bing rarely intervenes. Instead, each of the interviewees is allowed to speak for minutes at a time without cuts, with even digressions and repetitions retained. Such a seemingly unmediated style, particularly for more than eight hours, sounds unappealing, but it makes you feel as if you are present along with Wang, in the homes of these old people (most of them are in their eighties). Once there, it would be almost impolite to leave. Rather than feeling like sloppy editing, the accumulation of relentless repetitions in the survivors’ accounts reinforces their veracity. Aesthetically, the repetition becomes a mantra, a meditative reinforcement of the numbing horror of Jiabiangou.

Qi Luji, 83 years-old.

Conditions in the Jiabiangou re-education camp were indeed horrific. Without barracks, many prisoners were forced to sleep in ditches dug out of the desert soil. At night the temperature could fall to forty degrees below zero. We hear descriptions of prisoners so bloated and weakened by malnutrition that they no longer physically resembled human beings. Men drank their own urine and ate seeds and leaves to avoid becoming “wolf fodder.” One man describes how a fellow inmate was so severely enfeebled by starvation that he had to help him excavate feces from his body with a pointed tool. Another survivor remembers how, before corpses were buried, surviving inmates “took out their innards and grilled them.”

In this and his other films, Wang imbues his subjects with an innate dignity, simply through his act of bearing witness to their ability to survive in harsh conditions. He also, however, captures how jealousy, selfishness, and open conflict come to the fore in the struggle to live. Dead Souls is no exception to this commitment to portray humanity in the round. A few interviewees describe how they survived only because of the self-sacrifice of fellow detainees who shared their meager rations with them or thanks to relatives who traveled days to bring them extra provisions. Most survivors, however, admit that they escaped death only because they managed to maneuver themselves into a job that brought extra rations (mostly through theft).

Unsurprisingly, the best place to work was the kitchen. One eighty-three-year-old, who became head of the canteen, acknowledges that his stealing of food meant that other prisoners got even less and consequently starved. Another regrets refusing to share two spoons of flour with a fellow internee, who subsequently died of starvation. The extinguishing of humanist values of solidarity and compassion within a tyrannized group faced with death recalls the accounts of Nazi concentration camps in Shoah.

Gao Guifang, 97 years-old.

Shoah depicted the horror of totalitarianism. Dead Souls also shows its absurdity. Officials obediently incarcerated five percent of party cadres in these labor camps simply because Mao had arbitrarily announced that five percent of the population were wrongdoers. When one interviewee queried what would happen if a particular group contained more than five percent of “rightists,” he was sent to a re-education camp for his impertinence. As the testimonies accumulate, words like “rightist,” “communist,” and “re-education” lose meaning and the anti-rightist campaign, as described by these witnesses, is exposed more as a means by minor officials to settle scores, remove rivals, and secure their position than anything to do with political ideology or revolutionary strategy. This is power politics and ideology as experienced by everyday people.

Everyone Wang features denies the charge of being a rightist. Most were sent to Jiabiangou because several years previously they had criticized party bureaucracy and corruption. Ironically, they had been asked to do so by superiors obeying Mao’s call to let “a hundred flowers bloom.” Others were sent to Jiabiangou without being told why (and when their files were opened in the late 1970s, they discovered that no reason had ever been recorded). A few internees travelled to Jiabiangou willingly, believing the propaganda that the “re-education” camp would make them better communists and citizens.

Despite the seeming artlessness and unmediated presentation of the testimonies, Dead Souls has been expertly crafted. The interviews were edited down from six hundred hours of material, gathered from 120 witnesses over a period of twelve years. Also, after the first two interviews, Wang features two sequences that prove to be atypical but which do more than give us further information about the work camps. They suggest that Dead Souls is also about decay and memory in a universal sense (not that man’s inhumanity to man is anything other than universal). The first sequence shows a woman who had appeared in an earlier interview along with her husband. Now she is bedridden and debilitated. An on-screen graphic reveals that it is eleven years later and that her husband has died. We watch her for minutes, immobile. All she can mutter is a hope that she will die soon, because being dead would be easier than life at her stage.

Chen Zonghai, 85 years-old.

The next sequence follows the funeral cortège of an earlier interviewee as it winds its way up a mountainside. Wang places us in the midst of the action with long-lasting shots and untidy framing. Doing so, he makes death and decay immediate rather than something remembered. The crying and wailing are primal, especially when one of the sons declares his desire to follow his father into the grave. This reality of death reminds us of the preciousness of life, while revealing the horror created when other human beings turn that already brief life into one of absurd suffering with no escape.

Other sequences, aside from the interviews, include several occasions where Wang brings us on a walk through the site of the camp as it is today (it was later converted into a farm by the state but, because the environment is so inhospitable, very few of the families who were settled there remain today). These sections are similarly unpolished in style. The soundtrack consists of the harrowing noise of the wind buffeting against the microphone and the lone footsteps of Wang as he proceeds through this sterile, deserted landscape. His subjective camera frame picks out pieces of human bone and skull protruding out of the soil, each such image signifying an unspeakable horror that is (almost) buried from sight.

Wang himself appears only a handful of times. During the first half, we catch his reflection in a mirror in the apartment of a man who brings the filmmakers to his home. Toward the end, he appears in an atypical two shot, sitting at the table with his interviewee, smoking, casually dressed in a white T-shirt and black trousers with a few stains on them. He is letting us in on his process of spending time with these old people, patiently listening, infrequently prompting. Throughout, he has openly allowed us to be privileged witnesses of what he has excavated.

As it began, Dead Souls ends on text. This time it is the director’s words of thanks to all of those who agreed to be filmed, acknowledging that their, “pain has woken the sleeping souls of the deceased so that all the hardships endured will be known to as many people as possible.”

Declan McGrath is a filmmaker who has written two books on filmmaking.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3