“It is impossible for us to recover history today, but we can sense the existence of it. With a historical event, little pieces remain within people's memory. History exists in these scattered memories.”
-Wang Bing, Filming a Land of Flux (x)
“I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?”
“Those who lived in Jiabiangou don’t write.”
-Zhou Xiaoli, Dead Souls
And so it is that Wang Bing writes this history as it evaporates before his camera, like water turned to steam on a hotplate. Dead Souls is both oral history and caméra stylo, held together by a deft montage that neither reconciles this paradox or keeps them wholly apart. To render this work as merely an act of archive—of documenting stories, poetics be damned—is to erase the delicate authority of Wang Bing’s camera and Catherine Rascon’s montage. But also, to extract poetics from the entanglements of this history is folly. Remembering, like forgetting, is a political act and the philosophy of memory that Wang Bing is explicating can only be achieved through archival duration. The eight-hour running time should not be mistaken for a maximalist archaeology of spoken histories. Quite the opposite. Given the profound reverence for human experience, Dead Souls is haunted by a feeling of scarcity. Not enough time is spent with these souls. Not enough stories have been collected. Not enough lives were saved from their fate.
It is perhaps in this way that an obvious comparison has trailed this film like a smart bomb: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. It is no wonder that Wang Bing himself rejects such comparison, choosing instead a connection to Jean Eustache. To be fair, how many eight-hour memory projects about historical trauma exist in the world? The answer is an easy one: not nearly enough. Yet these films are far too different to maintain this comparison beyond a quick contextualizing remark. The Jews, after all, were not betrayed by a system that they supported. Perhaps the difference is obvious enough to anyone: Lanzmann recreates one of the most complex bureaucratic-industrial machines that vanished in the flames of the Reich, remaining only in living memory of those it meant to annihilate. Dead Souls is not interested in retracing the paperwork of the anti-rightist campaign at the core of its narrative. It doesn’t chase bus routes or shipping orders. It gives space for the repetitious telling of experience tied inextricably to the moments where Wang Bing locates them. In doing so Dead Souls presents a much different critique. All those condemned to die through slave labor and starvation were communists. Most of them dedicated. They were betrayed by a system that many of them fought for. Wang Bing traces the ontological horrors manifested by philosophical catastrophe.
The Aesthetics of Memory
Long stretches of the film take place in the living rooms of the dead. Here the elderly survivors of the anti-rightist campaign tell their tales. These men were sent to the re-education farm of Jiabiangou for two to three years where they starved within an inch of death and lived among the thousands of corpses of those who perished. The subjects are frail. The youngest are in their seventies, most in their eighties and nineties. Their words were recorded intermittently: 2005, 2012, 2016. Long takes give space for the process of remembering. Speech patterns, gestures, and the currents of thought are captured. Cuts occur like blinks of darkness; ellipses that maintain a consistency of space—the texture of light, the language of the body—but signal the curation of narrative. This is neither an unbroken stream of speech nor a violent restructuring of words into message. It is the gap of memory digitally manifested.
The rooms are dingy; the images pixelating. Wang Bing has discussed his equipment through exigency; clandestine cameras that can be transported without drawing attention. His shots are poorly lit, shaky, failing to capture the subject’s actions when they suddenly stand or motion with their hands. The grainy digital textures, the blown-out windows, the low-grade drop-off, all conspire to center the long interviews in the experience of the space-time of their utterance. Unfurling like the leaf of a fern. The tremors of Wang Bings’ fingers on the handheld equipment trace lines like penmanship. Inside the humble rooms of his subjects, glances of tenement buildings and passersby allude to a large and populous nation. We materialize in this one living room, in this bedroom, sitting at this kitchen table. At one point Zhou Xiaoli, who spoke about not writing, leaves his apartment and sits on a bench on a sidewalk. People walk by. He stares at the skyline. The image is pregnant with the lines of history. Wang Bing leads us to this image, waterlogged with forgotten histories, unhealed traumas, and the merciless march of time. Too often the deep running of still waters is an unearned justification in cinema; a platitude applied to any image like a lazy man’s Kuleshov. Speed is conflated with thoughtlessness and slowness with depth, but very few actively achieve this poignant slowness. Wang Bing is one.
History is anchored in the moment that it is articulated. Only through cohabiting spaces with his subjects can Wang Bing shepherd the unfurling of this history. Memory, like time, is circuitous. It winds around and around, it doubles back, it splinters off, it dissipates like the smoke from a cigarette. The same experiences are told repeatedly. Much of this is bodily memory: the workings of the intestinal tract, of bowel moments and nocturnal emission. Or confirming methods of survival: working in the kitchen was the difference between life and death. The repetition of these experiences becomes more powerful than any data visualization could render. Stalin was right, you know. A million dead is just a statistic; a million dead is just a graph in a Netflix documentary. The memories are faulty. The conviction of the memory of faces, people, experiences dance before the eyes of the storytellers like private holograms unseen by us. Some figures reach for them, like flies buzzing before their faces. Some remember names, some do not. Some recall the exact charges registered against them; others refuse to say. Some locate artifacts while others search in vain. The process of history is laid transparent. These many contradictions strengthen the complexity of the past that each speaker is painting. Not like the old allegory of the blind groping an elephant, describing extant parts to each other, but rather a mural painted asynchronously.
The Structure of Forgetting
The building of the narrative proceeds like a snowball rolling into an avalanche. Without context we begin in the living room of one man and his wife. We spend a long duration attending his tale before he mentions his brother. The first jump in space (but not of time) takes us to this brother. The next moves us back to the first man in 2005 before we jump to 2016 with him. He is the first to pass away in the structure of the film and what follows is his funeral. A long funeral sequence reveals the unresolved pain of multigenerational trauma. It’s the only funeral we witness in a film overloaded with death, and it establishes the passing of memory back into the soil; back into a hole in the ground not unlike those where men became animals to survive in Jiabiangou. Hereafter, each successive interview punctuates with a title screen telling us that the speaker has passed. Sometimes with the specificity of date, some with only the year. In this way, Dead Souls becomes both meditative and a race against time, attempting to capture these stories, these feelings, before they are gone forever. The funeral of the film’s first movement haunts the remaining hours of the work. Behind every ellipsis and title card is a painful ceremony of unresolved hurt and the dissipation of historical memory.
And now I wish to jump to the film’s final movement. The last chapter of the film changes perspective from convicted rightist survivors to a trio of difference: a cadre, a widow, and the voice of the dead, conjured Rashomon style. First, the cadre himself. After nearly six hours of stories sculpting the image of the cadres as kapos in the mind's eye, we finally get to sit with one. His tale reveals the hopelessness of the bureaucratic nightmare. What could I have done? He asks. Any criticism was a death sentence—especially given that most condemned rightists died for a single critical comment made in good faith. The cadre doesn’t give a face to the mechanisms of the anti-rightist campaign nor does he personify the paranoia of single party rule, which lines Dead Souls like the silhouette of a black hole. It reveals another lost soul caught up in the faceless traces of historical momentum. Second, to the archival voice of the dead. A series of letters. A single photograph. Survival is transmuted to an object: the document traces of human life. The letters come after hours of first hand description of letters. We already know they can’t be completely trusted. We already know that letters obscured realities and hid parcels of food (a two-directional obscuring). Third, to a surviving widow. She tells her experience of the anti-rightist campaign outside of Jiabiangou, but always tied to it. The death of her husband in the camp. The rippling effects of a single loss reverberating through an entire family. Through living memory.
The long roving camera is looking for bones in the desert. It finds them. There are many. Each one a missing narrative. Do these bones belong to the names of those fleetingly uttered in dingy kitchens? Do these bones write letters of their own? They are the thousands of untold stories that even an eight-hour film couldn’t find room for. The film ends with the camera still searching. An act of seeking more narratives concludes a film bursting with them.
Towards a Critique of Self-Criticism
Dead Souls lends itself to an insatiable Western appetite for critiques of communism uttered from within communist states. Like mistaking Ivan the Terrible for a critique of communism instead of Stalin or the amplification of Liu Xiaobo’s peaceful colonialism. And so it stands that the French-financed, English-titled Dead Souls is poised to be received as an insider’s account of the horrors of communism, ready-made for an audience fattened on Hubert Bals funded films in praise of neoliberalism. Dead Souls is certainly a pointed critique of Maoism and of single party rule and of dogmatism, but I’m unsure how to receive its political complexities.
If you’ll forgive the crude reductionism, any criticisms proffered by the film center on two oft-repeated claims: first that a great wall existed between rulers and the people and second, that dogmatic applications of critique yielded fatally absurd results. The mandated quota of rightists to ferret out and condemn reveals the violent application of quantitative data so prevalent in systems that worship production. This unleashed a petty bureaucratic nightmare that insulated a managerial class from the workers, who became powerless to refute accusations and payed with their lives. The injustices hidden behind euphemisms like re-education and labor begin to reflect other dogmatic systems built on fetishizing production. Slave labor built the Reich and the capitalist empire of the United States. But I wish to avoid the brand of Adam Curtis libertarianism that flattens political systems across history while obfuscating the violence of one's own position. Fascism, capitalism, and Maoism are far too different to be reduced to such comparisons, even if they all reveal political horrors of varying degree. However, the human tragedy of slave labor reveals a dark stain on their projects, and one that is too easily forgotten or dismissed by academic revolutionaries. How easy it has become to call for new reigns of terror in 140 characters. Who is going to make these calls? Graduate students? If present-day communist film analysis is anything to go by, then I’m not ready to be a communist yet. But I also refuse to see Dead Souls as an attack on communism entirely. Wang Bing is careful with his words, like a Chinese auteur, receding into descriptions of historical recovery and letting the whole truth be known.
I don’t know enough about Wang Bing’s politics to make any claims here. His subjects are utterly disgusted by the hypocrisy of Maoism. Many faithful became apostates, warming their boney limbs over fires kindled with Marxist literature. Maoism became a set of platitudes bounded by a little red cover. If folded into a communist historical project, does this work reveal the undermining power of dogmatism on its most loyal subjects? The bloody paranoia of maintaining power to steer the national projects? Could this work not be Maoist self-critique? A truth and reconciliation project. Or has self-critique passed into euphemism: critique yourself until you agree with those in power? It paints a damning portrayal of single party rule and the realities that Maoism unleashed a petty bureaucratic class system prone to paranoia and revenge. Labor was fetishized as noble and glorious, but paradoxically used as punishment. Re-education here is a euphemism for slave labor with death the intended outcome. I jokingly thought of a fantasy double bill: La Chinoise followed by Dead Souls. Ninety-five minutes of French-Maoist agitprop followed by four-hundred ninety-five minutes of trauma. But I never believed what is said about La Chinoise. It’s dialectic is too complex to be reduced to the naïve posturing that it’s claimed to be. Is it not both an essaying of Marxist-Leninist praxis that self-critiques the attitude of educated intellectual communists in Western states? Why should these privileged terrorists get to decide the fate of a nation? How can a Marxist-Leninist system adapted to a unique Chinese context be applied to France—or the United States for that matter? And with that question I am now out of my depth, if I wasn't already before I set pen to paper on Dead Souls.