'Dead Souls': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Cannes_Special Screenings_ DEAD SOULS Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
The screams of ghosts from purges past.

Wang Bing's eight-hour documentary collects the testimony of survivors of a hard-labor camp in China's Gobi Desert in the late 1950s.

Though it runs over eight hours, Dead Souls is not Chinese auteur Wang Bing’s longest film. But it definitely ranks as his most explosive outing. Charting the origins, operations and outcomes of a far-flung Chinese labor camp in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the documentary offers affecting and harrowing accounts from those who survived the gulag. On another level, it is a fiery j’accuse against the persecution unleashed during the Chinese Communist Party’s “Anti-Rightist Campaign” more than five decades ago, and the way the party chose to whitewash the man-made/Mao-made catastrophe rather than learn from its mistakes.

Despite its mammoth length — the film premiered at Cannes in two parts, with an hourlong intermission in between — Dead Souls is thoroughly focused and tightly structured. And it is an immensely perceptive piece about the history of China and its multitude of discontents. The marathon screening time, the emphasis on eye-witness accounts and the contemplation of the terrible consequences of a state-backed pogrom all make Dead Souls Wang’s very own Shoah

Like most of his films exposing the dark underbelly of a country styling itself "Amazing China," including issues like deindustrialization, poverty, refugees and sweatshops, this French-Swiss co-production is unlikely to be seen by the filmmaker's compatriots anytime soon. Internationally, Wang’s cinephile pedigree, bolstered by his win at Locarno last year with his Alzheimer's close-up, Mrs Fang, should guarantee Dead Souls life on the festival circuit. 

The film's title pops up about 40 minutes into the movie, during the 2005 funeral of camp survivor Zhou Zhinan. His son delivers a eulogy mourning the “dead souls” of those who perished in Jiabiangou, a collection of labor camps located on the edge of the Gobi Desert in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu. The victims, he says, were “deprived of dreams” for defending justice, and were condemned to years of hardship, wrapping themselves in rags and staying alive on gruel, or worse. 

Wang has stated that his source material was collected between 2005 and 2017, and approaches 600 hours of rushes from meetings with 120 people. Condensing these to some 20 old and ailing survivors, Dead Souls reveals the abject conditions that supposed “rightists” were subjected to in the camps. And the tales are not for the faint-hearted, including organizational cruelty, moral corruption and plain cannibalism. According to the sole camp guard appearing onscreen, being sentenced to the camp was like being “condemned to death in advance.” 

It’s not as if the prisoners had been caught red-handed in plotting the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly all of the interviewees insist they are loyal, patriotic party members, with some saying they were indicted for a small critical comment against a supervisor or splashing tears on a portrait of Mao. One interviewee recalls hearing how leading cadres were sending people off to “reeducation” by random, just to prove Mao’s view that 5 percent of society is composed of “bad elements.” 

It’s not the first time these stories have been brought to life, however. Writer Yang Xianhui’s 2009 novel Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp, which Wang acknowledges as an inspiration, was the first to turn a spotlight on this tragedy. The Guangzhou-based academic-activist-filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, meanwhile, recently delivered a six-hour, five-part documentary called Jiabiangou Elegy: Life and Death of the Rightists about the camps featuring newspaper clippings, photographs and, of course, interviews with survivors, some of whom are the same as those who appeared in Dead Souls

Wang himself has broached this subject before, most prominently in The Ditch, a fictional reenactment of life in the camps. But Dead Souls is a very different affair. Its closest equivalent is Wang’s 2007 documentary Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, an intense three-hour piece revolving around just one single conversation with a camp survivor. Rather than weaving snippets of interviews together to serve one big narrative — something Ai has done in her documentary — Wang allows his subjects to talk at length, an approach that lets the viewers empathize with the speakers through their words, silences and sighs. It doesn’t take a psychologist or historian to feel the pain of these ailing, forgotten and lonely old people: Wang notes, onscreen, how most of the interviewees have died since he filmed them.

Officially, the Chinese Communist Party has described the camps and the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” as something which "got out of hand.” With Dead Souls, Wang questions whether party leaders are really sincere in acknowledging their mistakes. Some interviewees recall facing a “rehabilitation trial” after their return home from the camps. Another recalls how local officials stifled the survivors’ efforts to build a memorial on the site of the camps, and how he has fallen under surveillance from public security agents for his part in the matter.

Visiting the site, Wang films human bones littering the land. Even more shocking is his meeting with some shepherds; following one of them around the area, he discovers how mass graves were simply flattened and transformed into cornfields and vegetable-growing paddies. Children run around, gleefully unaware of the traumatic past buried under their feet. In a way, this normalization is as scary as the survivors' accounts and the images of all those exposed remains. Dead Souls summons those spirits from the past for the sake of the current generation and beyond.

Production companies: Les Films d’Ici, CS Productions with Adok Films and Arte France Cinema
Director-screenwriter: Wang Bing
Producers: Serge Lalou, Camille Laemmle, Louise Prince, Wang Bing
Cinematographers: Wang Bing, Shan Xiaohui, Song Yang, Liu Xianhui
Editor: Catherine Rascon
Sound: Raphael Girardot, Adrien Kessler
Sales: Doc & Film International
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
496 minutes
In Mandarin