During the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961, Mao’s Anti-Rightist Movement resulted in the “re-education through labour” of middle-class intellectuals and government officials that were declared to be “rightist.” Some three thousand political prisoners were arrested and sent to the Jiabiangou labour camp – which was only built to hold fifty inmates – in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The conditions were beyond inhumane and more than 2,500 people starved to death. Partly inspired by Yang Xianhui’s novel Goodbye Jiabiangou, The Ditch recounts the harrowing story of life at the labour camp. Wang devoted several years to interviewing survivors of the camp, who shared their devastating and chilling experiences.
New Left Review: In the narrative processes of He Fengming and The Ditch, from screenplay to editing, how did you approach the conflicts between the lived experience of individuals and the ways in which historical events are presented?
Wang Bing: I don’t think I was impeded by such conflicts. What is important for me is, firstly, that you can accomplish things today through your own efforts, and also that it is possible to adopt a personal perspective when looking at historical events – and that I could do so through my filmmaking practice. This was an important factor in the whole shooting and production process of The Ditch. People are used to the kind of historical film that covers a long time span, weaves a complicated narrative and provides rich period atmosphere. But this was not my approach. I wanted to rethink how to view cinema and history, including how to handle time and narrative. I didn’t try to present the story in its totality; what I included in the film is only a tiny part of the larger historical event. In this sense, The Ditch is quite simple. It might disappoint some viewers, but I feel quite satisfied with it.
The Ditch does not provide any information on the “Anti-Rightist’”Campaign of 1957, nor tell the viewer the origin of the labour camp. It covers only the last and worst days that the “Rightists” spent at the camp in the winter of 1960. Similarly, it does not narrate the life stories of the central characters, apart from giving fragments of background information through casual dialogue. How then did you consider the question of time, in such a historical film?
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. Thus, my film consists of small parts. This part is on one character and that part is on another. One episode of this guy and then a different episode of another guy – they are all happening in the same place and within a month. These are all related, in symbiosis with each other, and the unity of time is shared by all. We did not try to build up the development of a character or a complete narrative. Nor could you say that Jiabiangou labour camp is the central character of the film – after all, The Ditch presents only a tiny part of Jiabiangou’s history. It isn’t aimed at giving the whole history of the camp and in any case, I didn’t have the resources to do so on a large scale. But I could still shoot the small portion of the time that truly interested me, and through it, we may gain a glimpse of that historical period.
Wang Bing in an interview with New Left Review1
“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.”
“Since I began researching the history of Jiabiangou State Farm in 2004, I have met and interviewed nearly one hundred survivors of Jiabiangou. We have become friends and confidants, and their stories and recollections have been crucial in helping me to understand the three decades that followed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Their words and their lives are a window to our shared history. Over the course of many years and many exchanges, I have come to know and perhaps even understand these elderly survivors of the gulag. Now in their seventies, eighties or nineties, they are considered by some to be eccentric, even odd. Many are in poor or failing health, living in poverty, estranged from their families or socially isolated, distrustful of strangers and psychologically scarred. They escaped the gulag only to return to a life of hardship, and spent decades living as social and political pariahs before they were finally rehabilitated and cleared of outstanding charges. This experience left an indelible mark on their psyches. For anyone who hasn’t lived through it, it is difficult to comprehend the suffering they experienced, perhaps because people today seem to pay such scant attention to history. This lacuna of historical awareness was my motivation for embarking on a long documentary project about the present-day lives of the Jiabiangou survivors. I had already completed two related films – the documentary He Fengming: Portrait of a Chinese Woman and the feature film The Ditch (“Jiabiangou”) – but I felt there was much more to be said about the topic.”
Wang Bing in a director’s statement on his Dead Souls (2018) in which he continued his work on the history of Jiabiangou.3
- 1. New Left Review, “Filming a Land in Flux. Interview with Wang Bing,” Sabzian, 22 October 2014. Originally published in New Left Review 82, July-August 2013.
- 2. Emmanuel Burdeau, “Vertical Cinema, Horizontal Cinema,” Sabzian, 18 April 2018.
- 3. Wang Bing, “Past in the Present. Director’s Statement,” Sabzian, 5 December 2018.