Sunday, December 16, 2018

3127. Film Review: Dead Souls

By Bilge Ebiri, The New York Times, December 13, 2018
Gao Guifang in “Dead Souls,” a Wang Bing documentary about Mao’s prison camps.CreditCreditGrasshopper Film/Icarus Films

“Nobody wants to talk about it. And most are dead.” That’s how one subject describes the legacy of the re-education camps that supposed “rightists” were sent to in the 1950s and ’60s in Mao Zedong’s China. Filmed over more than a decade, the director Wang Bing’s monumental, more than eight-hour documentary, “Dead Souls,” seeks to fill an important part of the historical record through extended interviews with about a dozen aging survivors of Jiabiangou, a complex of three work camps in northwest China where conditions were particularly dire.

Why were they there? These men and women were found guilty of thought crimes at a time when the Communist Party wanted to consolidate power and achieve a deluded form of ideological purity. As one interviewee notes, even the slightest inappropriate comment could get you sent away. But just as often, the accused were merely victims of party infighting. Several admitted that they spent years trying to find out why they had been accused.

Avoiding archival footage or insights from outside “experts,” Wang gives these survivors and their memories the stage. He lets the camera run as his subjects speak at length about the horrific things they saw and the comrades they buried — or, in many cases, didn’t get a chance to. Living in mud huts and caves, provided with increasingly meager food rations as the camps swelled in size, the majority of prisoners died of illness and starvation; in many cases, they were eaten by those still alive, while others were left for the wolves.
Many of these interviews were conducted in 2005 and 2006 as the director researched his 2010 narrative film, “The Ditch,” which perhaps accounts for the simplicity of his framing — the camera is often fixed, the lighting functional. Some will find this approach artless, but it has a certain hypnotic quality. These subjects speak for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, and our eyes may catch little details and patterns: the way an individual grabs his knee or scratches his face. Even the modest settings — a floral cushion here, a scattered piece of clothing or unmade bed there — give us a sense of the texture of these lives. In some cases, the little particulars are so absorbing that we might ignore what the interviewee is actually saying. (At one point, Wang even seems to lean into this idea, cutting away to one man’s wife in another room, taking her medicine, as the husband drones on in the background.)

Wang does occasionally reach beyond this basic, fixed-camera interview style. We see the funeral for one man, as his grown son wails about his parents’ fate and the injustices they suffered. Some interviews, clearly shot later, display more cinematic verve, with Wang filming heated conversations by survivors and panning among them. At one particularly poignant moment, we see a letter from a detainee who died at the camp — a nod, perhaps, to the many thousands who didn’t make it out alive. (Among the 3,200 prisoners at Jiabiangou alone, only about 500 survived.)

Despite its intense running time and disturbing subject matter, “Dead Souls” does not seek a complete accounting. In fact, it’s partly about the inability to convey the full horror of these experiences. Wang visits the sites of the camps, in the Gobi Desert, including a mass grave, but they are now just vast, empty stretches of dirt and dust, with a few scattered bones. Only once do we see what these camps in Gansu province actually looked like — in a photo one guard shares near the end of the film — and it’s clear that for Wang, the truth lies just out of reach, somewhere in the imagined space between the dry facts of history and these haunted memories.

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