Clocking in at more than eight hours, Dead Souls is one of the longest films to have played at the Cannes Film Festival.
The eight-hour film revealing the horrors of Chairman Mao’s gulags
Based on interviews and footage director Wang Bing gathered over 13 years, Dead Souls reconstructs the pain and suffering of those condemned to “re-education” – a euphemism for hard labor – in a gulag in northwestern China at the start of Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, in 1957.
The documentary premiered at Cannes on Wednesday in two parts, with an hour-long intermission in between.
“The filming of Dead Souls began around the same time as the preparations for my fictional feature The Ditch,” says Wang, referring to his 2010 film about Jiabiangou, a labor 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.
“It was difficult to look for them, as they were spread across provinces and cities across the country, and connections between them had 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 labor camps across China in the late 1950s and early 60s, when the country was at once mired in political turmoil – such as the disastrous industrialization 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 managed to visit the abandoned ruins of the labor camp, where he shot footage – later edited into a half-hour short in 2014 called Traces – 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.
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.
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 in China 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 marginalized communities run against the national narrative of a powerful, positive China.
Among his subjects are a declining state-owned factory, the rural poor, inmates in a mental asylum, sweatshop workers and refugees.
Despite his pedigree as one of China’s leading independent cineastes on the international art house circuit, 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.