Clocking in at more than eight hours, Wang Bing’s latest outing, Dead Souls, is probably one of the longest films to have taken a bow at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered on Wednesday, in two parts, with an hour-long intermission in between. The work’s length is, in a way, a reflection of Wang’s own odyssey in completing the documentary. 

Cannes Film Festival: Chinese film industry evolution embodied by ‘sixth generation’ directors Jia Zhangke and Zhang Ming

Based on interviews and footage he gathered over 13 years, Dead Souls recon­structs the pain and suffering of those condemned to “re-education” – a euphemism for hard labour – in a gulag in northwestern China at the start of Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, in 1957.

“The filming of Dead Souls began around the same time as the preparations for my fictional feature The Ditch,” says Wang, referring to the 2010 film about Jiabiangou, a labour camp in Gansu province. “I got to know a few people who made it out of the camp alive, and filmed in-depth conversations with them. After that, I thought I should search for all the survivors and conduct thorough interviews with them.

Cannes Film Festival continues to impress with its fresh, nervy and unpredictable slate

“It’s difficult to look for them, as they are spread across provinces and cities across the country, and connections between them have long been cut,” the 51-year-old says. “It was a very tortuous and challenging process, and I managed to talk to 120 people over three years, from 2005 to 2008.” 

After intermittent subsequent shoots, filming was finally completed in 2017.

Wang says his interviewees could still clearly recall their experiences: “It’s incre­dible and a very precious thing for them to face the camera and describe the conditions at Jiabiangou,” he says. “From these tiny fragments of memories, we could reveal the injustice suffered by those who perished there in the Gobi Desert more than five decades ago.”

Indeed, many did not live to tell their tale. Of the 3,000 individuals who passed through Jiabiangou, only 500 survived – a tragedy repeated in other labour camps across China in the late 1950s and early 60s, when the country was at once mired in political turmoil (such as the disastrous industrialisation campaigns of the Great Leap Forward) and a nationwide famine. 

The political climate has changed in the eight years since The Ditch was made, when Wang was still able to film clandestinely. He had managed to visit the abandoned ruins of the labour camp, where he shot footage – later edited into a half-hour short called Traces (2014) – of a windswept landscape peppered with human bones, the remains of dead in­mates who were buried in the sand. 

As the authorities sought to revise their stance towards the Anti-Rightist Movement – a per­spective embodied in a leading acade­mic’s claim, in 2013, that “not a single person” died during that calamitous period – officials began to crack down on any discus­sion of Jiabiangou. 

It’s incre­dible and a very precious thing for them to face the camera and describe the conditions at Jiabiangou. From these tiny fragments of memories, we could reveal the injustice suffered by those who perished there in the Gobi Desert more than five decades ago
Wang Bing, director

Guangzhou-based activist-film­maker Ai Xiaoming reported being harassed by local cadres and security personnel when she tried, in 2014, to visit the graves of those who perished at the camp. (Ai finished a five-part documentary, called Jiabiangou Elegy: Life and Death of the Rightists last year; it’s worth noting that before Ai and Wang, Hu Jie broached the subject, in 2004, in Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul.)

Wang declines to say whether he com­pleted Dead Souls under increased pressure and scrutiny from the state, or if he is worried about repercussions. It’s safe to assume, how­ever, that the documentary won’t be screened on the mainland any time soon. 

Then again, the filmmaker’s work has rarely been shown in his native country, largely because of the way his unvarnished representations of marginalised communities run against the national narrative of a power­ful, positive China: among his subjects are a declining state-owned factory (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks [2002]), the rural poor (Three Sisters [2012]), inmates in a mental asylum (’Til Madness Do Us Part [2013]), sweatshop workers (Bitter Money [2016]) and refugees (Ta’ang [2016]).

“My work down the years has been going fine, but, of course, most of my financial and technical support has come from other parts of the world,” says Wang. Dead Souls, for example, was produced with French and Swiss funds, and is represented inter­nationally by a Paris-based sales agent.

Documentary about Chinese Alzheimer’s sufferer wins Locarno Film Festival’s top prize

Despite his pedigree as one of China’s leading independent cineastes on the inter­national art-house circuit – a reputation enhanced by the award he received at the Locarno Film Festival last year for Mrs Fang (2017), a piece about the final days of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s – Wang says he is not concerned about how international audiences perceive his films. His biggest wish now, he says, is to offer audiences a complete, serious and conscientious account of a “com­para­tively important historical incident”. 

With Dead Souls, his slow and lonely march through the haze of modern Chinese history looks set to continue.