After watching Chinese director Wang Bing’s film “Dead Souls” (France/Switzerland 2018), you feel there are two names you must never forget: Jiabiangou and Mingshui. In 1957, the Communist Party in China decided to get rid of “reactionary” elements. Somewhere between 550,000 and 1.3 million people were marked as suspects.
In 1957-1958, 3,200 people who were labelled as radical rightists were sent to the Jiabiangou “farm” in the Gobi Desert in northeastern China for “re-education.” Except that, as one witness in Wang’s disturbing film tells it, they were given no seeds to plant and no farm implements to work with, they couldn’t even see where to plant because the land was not flat, there was no water, and no shelter or living quarters had been built for them in the rocky and sandy landscape where the temperature reached 20 degrees below zero.
The desert land was frozen and “hard as steel” a meter deep. The prisoners, most of them from the educated middle class, carved out shallow pits or found places in caves in an attempt to take shelter. As their already meager rations were cut to just 150 grams, or two spoonfuls, of food a day, chaos and catastrophe set in.
With little emotion, the witnesses recount how people drank urine for lack of water; they describe one man whose body swelled so much from famine that he could no longer wear his clothes and so he went naked; they tell of cannibalism; and of how they were so terribly weak that each night all they could do was wrap the dead in their blankets, load them onto a wagon and struggle to bury them, knowing that the shallow graves they toiled to dig amid the sandstorms would be no match for the strong winds.
Wang, one of the finest documentary filmmakers in the world, turns the 20 testimonies from which the eight-hour film (photographed over a period of 12 years, from 2005-2017) is compiled into a compelling reflection not just on Maoist China and other totalitarian regimes, but also on cinema’s ability to expose the truth.
He allows the witnesses, most of whom are survivors now in their seventies and eighties, to be quiet, to think, while his camera records the physical manifestations of delving into memory, and just listens. Thirty-three years after Claude Lanzmann made “Shoah,” Wang’s film indicates that the “Age of Testimony” was confined to the West.
Like Lanzmann, Wang also traces the mechanism of destruction, he searches for an historic truth that up to now was taboo in China. Despite the clear inspiration from Lanzmann, Wang’s cinematic language is unique. Only rarely does his camera move during the interviews. It embodies his total attentiveness, through which the story, which appears not to have been known from the start, gradually tells itself.
The anger over the horrific injustice can be felt in the tone, in the tremor of the voice, in the pauses, in the restraint of the responses. “We thought about just one thing: to steal, to steal, to steal food Who survived? The cooks, the kitchen workers, the grave diggers, those who looked after the horses. And those who fled.”
Wang’s camera (the director is also one of the cinematographers) records the remains of corpses in the desert. It stops short next to the scattered skulls and bones, lingers there, continues on and finds more and more remains. All that is heard in the background is the howling wind, a reminder of the past. The camera is also performing a memorial ceremony.
Only about 500 people survived the Jiabiangou and Mingshui labor camps. Some were released in 1961. Persecution of “rightists” continued through the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 and most were not granted rehabilitation by the Chinese government until 1978. The “dead souls,” it turns out, are not just the dead from these camps, which were just two camps of dozens in Maoist China. These souls include many of the victims’ family members, whose story is partially revealed in the film as well; and in a sense, even though they were around to give testimony, they are the survivors (many of whom have since died, the film informs us).
'I could not look at these appalling videos'
“The Cleaners,” a film by Hans Block and Moritz Rieswieck, documents a dual form of oppression. Global companies like Facebook and Google hire young employees to screen out the dark content of the Web, like child pornography, graphic violence, terror and Internet bullying. But these young folks, whose job is “to clean” content, are enslaved to the quota of 25,000 images they must look at each day, with only seconds allotted to each of them to decide whether to “ignore” or “delete” an image.
The image to which the film keeps returning is that of the obscured face of a young woman gazing at the screen at her workplace in a nondescript office building in Manila. Her face is not shown due to the confidentiality clause in her employment contract, but we hear her say: “Delete, delete, delete.”
The camera follows these young people who work as content screeners to support their families back in their impoverished homes on Manila’s outskirts. Some of the “cleaners” get around the secrecy clause by telling their stories via Internet chats: “I could not look at these appalling videos,” says one, “but if Quality Control finds out, it’s marked down as an error. I’m only allowed three errors per month.”
The daily exposure to the world’s horrors seems to be a dead end for the world’s poor, towards whom global capitalism is indifferent.
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