DOSSIER EN
29.05.2019
Wang Bing

Filming a Land in Flux

At the turn of this century, Wang Bing entered film history when he boarded a freight train with a small rented DV camera and started filming the snowy landscapes of the industrial district of Tiexi in northeastern China. For the following two years, the former photography and art student documented the decline of the district’s state-owned factories, tirelessly following the remaining workers in the corridors and expanses of the complexes. Out of the three hundred hours of footage, he created the monumental Tiexi qu [West of the Tracks] (2002): a three-part, nine-hour document of China’s transition from state-run to free market economy, and the ensuing desolation of the working class that makes way for an expansion of cheap and precarious labour. From then on out, Wang Bing has continued to chronicle the everyday lives of those who find themselves on the margins of society amidst the vast and rapidly changing landscapes of 21st-century China, unveiling what all too often remains invisible under the guise of its “growth miracle” and its wilful cancellation of historical memory.

Driven by an unceasing desire to film and to discover, Wang Bing never ceases to explore new places and situations, allowing himself to be led by chance encounters. From the Tiexi district, he moved his centre of activity towards the northwestern regions of China. In the Gobi Desert, he worked for several years in secret on Jiabiangou [The Ditch] (2010), his only fiction feature to date, which recounts the struggles to survive in Jiabiangou, one of the labour camps that were in use during Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Movement in the years from 1957 to 1961. More south-west, in the province of Yunnan, he documented the lives of a broken, impoverished farmer’s family in a small mountain village in San zimei [Three Sisters] (2012) and the inmates of a decrepit mental hospital in Feng ai [’Til Madness Do Us Part] (2013), before following refugee families fleeing the ongoing civil war in Myanmar in Ta’ang (2016) and travelling with migrant garment workers to the southeastern city of Huzhou in Ku Qian [Bitter Money] (2016). Within this internal geography, long-term projects are alternated with more modest but no less powerful ones. During the preparations for The Ditch, Wang Bing recorded in barely one take He Fengming’s startling testimony of the persecutions that she and her family endured throughout the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution. While filming Three Sisters, he met two adolescent boys whose daily experience of ennui and repetition in a cramped factory-owned hut he captured in a handful of fixed long shots. And in the course of documenting Huzhou’s urban world of sleepless sweatshops and labourers, Wang Bing spent a week along the desolate shores of the Yangtze River in order to film the last days of Mrs. Fang before she passed away.

From the brutal conditions of modern-day slavery to the barren vestiges of disappearing histories, from youngsters squandering their time to elderly in the face of death, from the industrious to the recumbent, the striking oppositions and reversals in Wang Bing’s work are also accompanied by a common perseverance: a determination to extricate from the core of exhaustion the ultimate fragments of the possible. Carefully navigating his camera through the encountered spaces, respectfully juggling the balance between distance and proximity, he patiently searches to capture the actuality and capacity of people who could be identified as seeming to experience little more than ‘bare life’. Instead of enclosing those ignored by the radar of History in a confined framework that supposedly befits their miniscule lives, he chooses to give them time to exist, opening up their lifeworld in order to affirm how their bodies, voices and gestures, too, have a story to tell.

This collection of texts and interviews appeared originally as the publication Wang Bing. Filming a Land in Flux, compiled, edited and published by Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK. For the online publication, an interview with Wang Bing was added, conducted by Emmanuel Burdeau in 2018 on his latest film, Dead Souls. This Dossier aims to trace Wang Bing’s trajectory by way of a series of writings and interviews that were published between 2009 and 2018. From Luc Sante’s account of the “panoramic spectacle of progress collapsing” in West of the Tracks to Wang Bing’s written treatment for Past in the Present – now titled Dead Souls (2018), his third film dealing with the history of the Anti-Rightist Movement and its consequences – they accompany the ongoing ventures of a filmmaker who has taken on the invaluable task of weaving a map of this other China, to film the trials and tribulations of a land in flux.

Gerard-Jan Claes (Sabzian) and Stoffel Debuysere (Courtisane)

Translations
Michael Blanga-Gubbay, Cindy Carter, Veva Leye, Sis Matthé, C. Penwarden

Copy editing
Rebecca Jane Arthur and Sis Matthé 

Thanks to
Thom Andersen, Kheya Bag (New Left Review), Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Louis Comolli, Julien Gester, Michael Guarneri, Daniel Kasman, Mark Peranson (Cinema Scope), Didier Péron, Eugenio Renzi, Christopher Small, Luc Sante, Jin Wang

Special thanks to
Zhang Yaxuan and Camille Bourgeus

This Dossier was compiled and edited by Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK.

Article EN
21.03.2018

Wang Bing’s film is at once epic and intimate – epic because of the sheer scale of the constructions, and the long, straight railroad tracking shots Wang employs to render its geography; intimate because of its focus on the daily life of the last workers and the soon-to-be displaced. Wang’s film is not journalistic in that it does not show us, for example, the bureaucrats who made the various life-altering decisions, and it doesn’t show the rest of Shenyang – the bourgeois neighborhoods, shops, hotels, highways.

Conversation EN
22.10.2014

“I don’t usually worry about whether the audience will accept the way my film is designed. You are the filmmaker; it is your job to make a convincing work. Instead of worrying about the audience, you should search for ways to make your film a good one. To me, it means to look for, or create, a potentially better cinema that fits your needs in making this particular work. At the same time, your film must be capable of accommodating the living reality of its subject. [...] The technique and style you choose for a film should be appropriate to your subject matter. What is really important is to establish a relation between the subject of your film and your audience. It is the camera that creates this connection.”

Article EN
29.05.2019

The exercise is new to me. To reread what I have written in another time. Over the past decade, I was occasionally prompted to speak on Wang Bing’s film West of the Tracks (2002), which I don’t just consider a great movie but a cinematographic event that changes the state of things we still call ‘cinema’. In Corps et cadre (Verdier, 2002), I regretted not being able to produce a true critique of this film fleuve (of nine hours). The thing was beyond me; it still is. I then resolved to a different tactical approach. To examine what remained of the film in my memory. A film which is that long, a whole which is that intricate, cut into four segments each lasting more than one hour, two hours, three hours, obviously presents a challenge to the memory of the spectator that I am.

Conversation EN
29.05.2019
Julien Gester 2012
Translated by

In He Fengming [Fengming: A Chinese Memoir] (2007) Wang Bing recorded in barely one take He Fengming’s startling testimony of the persecutions that she and her family endured throughout the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution in China. “I wanted to assure her the most ample freedom of speaking. The core of the film has been shot during one afternoon. Fengming was 76 years old, she’s a woman who entirely lives in the past, in her memory. In fact, it seemed correct to make an immobile film, a ‘talking heads’ film and I did not want to stage anything else. It’s about understanding her for who she is: a spectral woman locked up in the past, wandering about in an apartment that has been reduced to a tomb.”

Article EN
29.05.2019

But fire also burns in the face of Yingying, the dutiful, stoic eldest daughter who yearns to read and write and study, to discover something unattainable in this tiny, remote village. There is fire even in her dirty, white-hooded jacket with the words “Lovely Diary” on the back, a jacket she never takes off throughout the film. She never demands anything, and she barely speaks, yet she is one of the most compelling, most affecting figures in all of documentary cinema.

Conversation EN
29.05.2019
Didier Péron 2014
Translated by

“Yingying lives in hard circumstances. First, she was separated from her mother. Then, she was obliged to live several months without her father. And thereafter, she had to live without him and her two sisters. She has a difficult relation with the human community around her, her family and friends. But when she’s with the animals, you can feel her innocence, a certain human truth, very primal, very basic.”

Article EN
29.05.2019

Everything, you know, is nothing. The patients in every psychiatric hospital in the world do not exist. Their identity is denied. They have no name. They are simply crazy. In Wang Bing’s cinema we meet two types of characters. Those who have no name, but who describe themselves through action, and those who have a name and act through words. Dumbed by medicines, the madmen of Wang Bing are deprived of the opportunity to tell their story. This is the main issue that the film tackles and solves.

Conversation NL EN
29.05.2019

“A mental hospital is not, as such, an original theme. The story told by ’Til Madness Do Us Part could just as well happen anywhere else. It is a common story. The fact remains that mental illness is of course an interesting subject, particularly in China. Somehow, mental illness frees mankind, as it liberates mankind from the yoke of the law. At the same time, it makes man more vulnerable... […] The life we see on the outside of an asylum is fundamentally not very different from the one we can see on the inside. What interested me was less the hospital than the patients and the life they were living... They don’t consider this place a mental hospital but the place in which they live. […]  It is their house. That’s where they live as if it is their home. Some of them even stay there for the rest of their lives. Very early on, I was struck by the impression that in a lot of ways there is more humanity on the inside of a hospital than on the outside.”

Conversation EN
29.05.2019

“There is no absolute freedom for any filmmaker. There will always be limitations on various levels, according to the particular conditions a director works in: “less money” causes the “less freedom” of “less money,” and “more money” causes the “less freedom” of “more money”. For certain filmmakers, having little money means having little freedom, for other filmmakers – like myself – having little money means having more freedom, because the low budget makes things simpler and more straightforward. So I would say that a director has first of all to find the suitable conditions to create, to do what he wants to do. A good director always manages to work around – and sometimes break through – these limitations, and achieve his aims.”

ARTICLE FR EN
18.04.2018

Vertical cinema, films that walk. Horizontal cinema, films that are recumbent. Between them is a time outside time, the same duration alien to the laws of work, of reason and of health. How, and until when, can a life be extended once it seems to have left itself behind? What virtual actions remain latent within what appears to be the most complete inaction? From indefatigable walking to the fatigue of the recumbent, the spectacular reversal of postures is also accompanied by a shared perseverance: Wang Bing’s gesture consists in disengaging from the core of exhaustion the ultimate fragments of the possible.

Conversation EN
29.05.2019

“Behind her eyes I saw something – a light. And that light reminded me of a child’s eyes. I thought, “She’s there and we know that she’s there looking out from behind her eyes.” Eyes talk to us in these ways. When it dawned on me that a second chance to record her was unlikely, I realized that for the most part this would be the way to have her appear in the film. I thought it would probably be the only way to make people feel that she’s there, she’s alive, she’s still alive.”

Article EN
5.12.2018
Wang Bing 2012
Translated by

“When making a documentary film about events that happened nearly sixty years ago, an oral history format is an easy choice, but I have deliberately chosen not to take this approach. Instead I hope to show, through the lives of the Jiabiangou survivors, how the present speaks to the past.” Wang Bing wrote this text in 2012 as a treatment for the movie Past in the Present (2018). Later, the name was changed into Dead Souls.

Conversation EN
29.05.2019

Before the premiere at the 2018 Cannes filmfestival, Emmanuel Burdeau talked to Wang Bing about his colossal documentary work Dead Souls. “As it is often the case, though, the problem was the solution: I finally understood that it was this gap that would be the subject of Dead Souls. I finally realized that what interested me through the memory of the survivors was to be able to touch upon the reality of those who had died. But all this remains very theoretical... From a practical standpoint I still didn’t know how the reality of those who were dead was going to come forth from the testimonies of those who were, on the contrary, still alive and who, when they were interviewed, spoke mostly of just that: the fact that they had survived. ”