W A N G
B I N G
1. T he Great Leap Backwards — p. 02 Luc Sante
7. T he Denied Identity of the Nameless Voices — p. 34 Eugenio Renzi
2. F ilming a Land in Flux — p. 06 In Conversation with New Left Review
8. A lors, la Chine — p. 36 In Conversation with Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi
3. W est of the Tracks: Continuing the Journey — p. 18 Jean-Louis Comolli
9. “A certain freedom in life” — p. 44 In Conversation with Michael Guarneri and Jin Wang
4. F engming, Anchor of China — p. 24 In Conversation with Julien Gester
10. V ertical Cinema, Horizontal Cinema — p. 52 Emmanuel Burdeau
5. F ire in Every Shot: Wang Bing’s Three Sisters — p. 26 Thom Andersen
11. I nner and Outer Space — p. 54 In Conversation with Daniel Kasman and Christopher Small
6. “Those that work the most don’t own anything” — p. 30 In Conversation with Didier Péron
12. P ast in the Present — p. 60 Wang Bing
Published on the occasion of the Wang Bing focus program at the Courtisane festival 2018 (March 28 - April 1, 2018) and the subsequent program at CINEMATEK (April 2 - 5, 2018). An initiative of Courtisane, in collaboration with CIFA (Chinese Independent Film Archive), KASK / School of Arts and CINEMATEK, with the support of the Department of Chinese Studies, Ghent University. Publication compiled, edited and published by Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK. Special thanks to Zhang Yaxuan and Camille Bourgeus.
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 southwest, 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 publication aims to trace Wang Bing’s trajectory by way of a series of writings and interviews that were published between 2009 and 2017. 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 tentatively titled Dead Souls, his forthcoming 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.
Stoffel Debuysere, Courtisane & Gerard-Jan Claes, Sabzian
The Great Leap Backwards
West of the Tracks (2002)
Wang Bing’s overwhelming West of the Tracks presents us with the panoramic spectacle of progress collapsing. Industry folds and empties its plants ; workers lose their jobs and their benefits ; people are idle and demoralized, and then they are unhoused, and they demolish their own former dwellings to cash in on their value as scrap ; people scavenge among gargantuan ruins that loom like the remnants of a forgotten civilization of giants. It is every twentiethcentury mural depiction of the struggle for the good life-socialist or capitalist-viewed in reverse. It is as if the film were being run backwards, or like the last lines of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “And we, who think of happiness ascending, / would with consternation / know the rapture that almost overwhelms us, / when happiness falls.” 1 The death of industry is not news, of course. It has been going on for half a century – my own life’s course was determined by the abrupt end of the textile industry in my native town when I was a child. And over the decades its pace has increased. Think of, in no particular order, the abandonment of Detroit, the fall of the aerospace industry in Southern California, the defeat of the British miners’ union, the vast factories of the Ruhr turned into parks, the hazardous sport of exploring empty shells of plants worldwide, the numerous looming wrecks everywhere that are too expensive or dangerous to demolish, with their real estate too poisoned for rebuilding. Assuming that progress exists – that at worst it has been subject to a temporary interruption – is by now such a well-established habit that unmistakable evidence to the contrary can be casually overlooked on a daily basis. But then we in the West have historically had the experience of change occurring gradually over time, so that it could come to seem organic and inevitable, and a process hard to dislodge. China, however, was press-ganged into industrialization, just as most major social changes there over the course of the past century have been forced through suddenly and brutally. Maybe that is why when industry fails, as it does here, in the Teixi District of Shenyang, it seems to take most of the tangible aspects of modern life along with it. 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. There are few motor vehicles in the film, few paved streets, seemingly no structures built since the 1950s. The chief signs of modern life, which is to say the only things the people can afford to consume, are clothing and pop songs. In something over nine hours, Wang brings us inside the world he is chronicling so thoroughly that, if we watch it in one go, we are apt to lose track of what things outside are like. You begin to wonder what his shooting ratio might have been – whether, that is, he shot for so long that his subjects forgot that he was there. Maybe he stood there for weeks and months with his camera, not shooting until every so often something struck him. Maybe the concept of being filmed was so foreign to his subjects that they accepted his activity without complaint or self-consciousness. Maybe his personality was such that he soon blended in with the surroundings. In any case, Wang manages to get an enormous amount of footage of people with their guard down, displaying frustration or drunkenness or jealousy or pettiness or sentimentality or even, as in one extraordinary sequence near the end, breaking down altogether. Maybe his subjects have had their emotions so thoroughly abraded that any amount of self-protection would seem foolish, like putting on airs. As a consequence, there is very little emotional distance between them and us. When this is combined with that strange phenomenon that occurs when watching very long movies with subtitles – you begin to imagine that you are actually understanding speeches in a language you do not know, rather than reading skeletal translations – the immersion is complete. Immersion is certainly Wang’s method. He gives us the lay of the land, introduces us to the dying factories one by one, thrusting us into the small talk and sniping and grousing of the break room as well as the labor – seemingly at once outsized and primitive – of the factory floor. The general process is repeated again and again, from plant to plant: copper plating,
04 West of the Tracks (2002)
copper smelting, lead plating, zinc smelting, zinc plating, and so on. The scenes of work and downtime are interspersed with segments in which Wang travels, camera in hand, down endless corridors and into vast sheds, some of them seeming abandoned until he takes us into the corner where the work goes on. You realize that each of these places once employed thousands and are now down to dozens. Then the plants close, one by one, and this is marked by an odd touch: the workers are taken out to the country for a last shakedown inspection at the hospital. They are there for a few weeks, doing little but having their blood tested, so that their stay takes on the lineaments of a bleak vacation. They drink, play cards, watch porn videos, and take brief jaunts outdoors ; one of them manages to drown in a pond. It is a valediction and, of course, a muted death sentence, since the visit can do little but confirm that they have been poisoned by their labor. In the second section, Wang introduces us to the surrounding neighborhood, an accretion of one-story shacks not much better than chicken coops, laid out along vaguely graveled paths. The place is called Rainbow Row, although the name was apparently imposed by officialdom – it was originally called Handmaiden’s Grave, after a romantic suicide legend, but that moniker clearly wouldn’t do. The action begins with a fair at which a fast-talking MC raffles off a few big prizes – the entire ceremony could be translated with little cultural difference to almost any country in the world – after which scavengers comb the field for anything resalable and the desperate hunt around for the miraculously unscratched scratch ticket. In this section, Wang’s editing shows itself to be as astonishing as his shooting skills, as he weaves dozens of tiny stories together in a sort of roman fleuve, headless and tailless but nevertheless propulsive, as well as revealing. The young, the old, the embittered, the weirdly optimistic, the shrewd, the unbalanced, all are accounted for. Wang manages to establish a sense of community both emotionally and geographically – we keep returning to the White Swan market, where everybody shops and the youth hang out and use the telephone. As the neighborhood is forcibly vacated we worry about the market as if we lived down the way – every time we go in, something else seems to be missing, and the chain that allows it to operate appears unwilling to support the owners in a new location.
The third part begins and ends aboard trains that ply the tracks between the factories. They figured in the first section as well, hauling raw materials to the plants and hauling away the finished product, but now they appear to do little but assist the scavenging of their remaining employees. We get the sense that they will not be running for long. Eventually the section focuses on Old Du and his son, who have been professional scavengers for some time, and who are allowed by railroad workers to live in a trackside shack. Old Du, plainspoken and canny, has survived many reversals and seems likely to withstand his eventual eviction, but his son, much more fragile, begins to fall apart on camera almost from the moment it alights on him. The movie’s first section is involving in an intellectual way – we are visitors. The second part sets the viewer down in a community, almost as a member of that community, with a stake in its viability and attempts at happiness. The third part, however, is astonishingly intimate – we are all the way inside, very nearly members of a family. Its intimacy is somehow emphasized by the strangeness of its physical setting, which is as striking as if we had lived alongside it for years but were only just suddenly taking notice. The mammoth shells of the factories look not just like outsize ruins but deeply alien, like vestiges of some science-fictional race that has no interest in or sympathy for the human cause. The factories may have been crushed, but they appear able to crush everything surrounding them as they fall. A measure of the greatness of Wang Bing’s film is that it does not allow the viewer to sink into the comforting numbness of despair. Human beings, despite their many flaws, are too valuable for mere contemptible despair to be an option, and humans will somehow carry on in the bleakest of circumstances.
Translation by John Waterfield.
Originally published in Sukhdev Sandhu (ed.), Leaving the factory: Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (New York: Texte und Töne, 2009).
The Ditch (2010)
Filming a Land in Flux In Conversation with New Left Review New Left Review: Could you tell us about your childhood and family background? Wang Bing: When I was born in 1967, our family was half in the city and half in the countryside. My parents had left their respective villages in Shaanxi Province in the 1950s, both moving to the provincial capital, Xi’an. The early 1960s were the famine years, following the Great Leap Forward, and to reduce pressure on supplies, city dwellers had been urged to move back to the countryside. By that time my father was studying in college, so it was my mother who left, though we three children were all born in Xi’an ; my sister is two years older than me, my brother four
years younger. By the time I was born, the Cultural Revolution had already started. Everybody advised – and my father agreed – that cities were too chaotic to be safe, plus it would be more convenient looking after little children in their home village. So after we were born, my mother always brought us back to the countryside. We all attended schools in rural areas. My parents were from two different counties. Initially, we all stayed with my mother. When I was six, my paternal grandmother passed away. My parents couldn’t offer much daily help to my grandfather over there, so they decided to send me to keep him company. I stayed with my grandfather
for several years on my own, without my sister or brother. Both my elementary school and junior high school were where my grandfather lived. But actually, it was an intermittent separation ; I would go back to my mother’s from time to time. It was as if I had two homes for those years. What was life in the two villages like? Was kinship very important culturally? Both my parents came from the central region of Shaanxi Province, which had well-cultivated land and a rich agricultural tradition. Historically its development was much better than the southern or the northern parts of the province. My mother’s home was in Jingyang County, about 80 kilometers east of Xi’an ; transportation wasn’t bad, with direct bus services to the city. The village had some sixty households. My father’s home was in a village not far south of Xi’an, in Zhouzhi County, in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. That village is very big for Shaanxi, with a population of 20,000 by the 1970s – much larger than my mother’s family village. The two cultures were very different. To be sure, there were common features and, yes, some kinship factors, but primarily, life in this central Shaanxi region, Guanzhong, is relatively leisured. It is quite unlike the lifestyle in other parts of inland China, such as the provinces of Henan, Shanxi or Hebei. I have had the chance to visit the countryside there on numerous occasions, and I could always sense the difference. Comparatively speaking, people from Shaanxi are more conservative. In my view this cultural conser vatism is mainly due to the fact that Shaanxi did not get embroiled in the wars of China’s modern period. When did you start your college studies? I was in junior high school in 1978 and 1979, but I didn’t go to college until 1991, a whole decade later, due to family reasons. My father had studied civil engineering in Xi’an and had already graduated and been assigned a job at the provincial construction-design studio before the Cultural Revolution started in 1966. He stayed there all the time I was living with my grandfather and attending school in the village. Then, in 1981, my father was accidentally killed by gas poisoning. At that time the policy was that the deceased worker’s child could fill the
employment vacancy, so I took up the position in the design studio and started work with a formal job. I was only fourteen. To begin with I was put in the ‘rear supply’ department, doing all kinds of chores. But the only thing that really mattered to me was to be able to study. In the dormitory where the unmarried employees lived, the young people all became good friends. We ate together and played together. Many of the others were college graduates, arriving every year once the universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. From the 1977 class all the way to 1986, the design studio absorbed some of the province’s top-ranked students. Many of them were intellectually gifted. They all knew their art history by heart. This was the 1980s ; for most people, it was a restless period – everyone had expectations, hopes for the future, for careers, personal life, and so on. That was what the ’80s were like. But, in my view, it was also a rather banal period. I became very interested in the arts while I was at the studio. A wide range of projects were undertaken there, drawing on different disciplines, of which architecture was the closest to art. At the same time, architecture is the most practical of the art forms ; it is the combination of art and utility – so people trained in architecture tend to lean either towards artistic or practical directions. But studying architecture gives people unique strengths compared to art-school or film-school training. Students at art school tend to have special talents in one area or another, but they are usually not so well informed or good at conceptual thinking. It is very different for architecture students, who have to study mathematics and other science courses, and as a result, think and argue very logically. Relatively speaking, they are much stronger in intellectual terms. Did you think about studying architecture at the time, or civil engineering? I never thought of majoring in civil engineering. I initially thought about architecture. I worked very hard to prepare for the college entrance exams – by 1984, I was working mostly on preparing for the special tests for architecture. But then I took up photography in 1986 or ’87. I also took up painting, in about 1988.
How did you turn to photography? At the beginning it was mainly due to curiosity, but it was also because I had to decide on a major for my college studies. Architecture had very rigorous entry requirements at the time, so I thought about the fine arts. My friends at the studio all had basic training in painting, so I learned from them and painted together with them, which helped me prepare for art school. But it was highly competitive, getting into a fine-art course, and what I had learned in the studio was far from enough. For me, photography became the only route. Plus I’d already had a camera for several years and had been practicing before I started painting. Though I hadn’t published any of my photos, I had gathered enough experience. In 1991 I entered the Lu Xun Arts Academy in Shenyang, in the Northeast, majoring in photography. So you studied photography. When did your attention turn to cinema? I was already thinking about changing to film in my second year at art college. I started buying books on film and doing the preparatory work. In my last year, before graduation, I went to visit the Beijing Film Academy and asked at the cinematography department whether I could enroll in the short-term training programme there. They said yes. They were very nice to me, since I was coming from a very good course. Actually, a year before my graduation from Lu Xun Arts Academy, I had already decided that, instead of going into the job market, I would continue my studies, which is what I did. After graduation, I carried on taking classes in Beijing, still working with a camera, but now in cinematography. How long did you study at the Beijing Film Academy? How many were on your course, and was there a lot of discussion? The training programme was initially for one year, but I stayed on for another. There were many classmates, and I also made many friends. But the main difference between us was our backgrounds ; most of them were there on temporary leave from their formal jobs, whereas I was a new graduate from a formal art school. Our previous learning experiences were different, in terms of basic training. Most of them had not been through rigorous formal study.
Photography is still, while cinematography is in motion. Did you have to pass through a familiarization process between the two? Photography as a form of visual art has its own properties and characteristics. Many people maintain a lifelong engagement with it. I used to spend day after day in the darkroom when I was a student in Shenyang and gained some understanding of the form and working process. However, personally, I was not particularly attracted by the seizing of a given moment ; for me, the moving image was far more interesting. It provided a unique way to enter the reality of our time, to present the many facets of human life in a holistic way. As for familiarization, it is after all a question of material, whatever form you are engaged in. For example, for a journalist engaged in writing, familiarity with language is a must. For me, in both photography and cinematography, the basic language is the image. Of course, I did not have a thorough acquaintance with the moving image when I first got to Beijing Film Academy. But it was a question of turning quantitative accumulation into qualitative transformation. Learning became something in one’s own hands. In fact, after spending a couple of years getting into the field, film school would stop offering real solutions. From joining the design studio, aged fourteen, to entering college, aged twenty-four, you had a whole decade to learn about the arts from various perspectives. Were you aware of the difference between East and West at the time? I was not conscious of it before I went to Shenyang. In the ’80s, the things I learned and books I read were all European – and there, classical architectural history is not divided from the other aspects of art history. Architectural projects involved painters, sculptors and other artists working together ; it was not divided into different professions. There was no stand-alone architectural history in the past. We have to view architecture as part of art history – a very long history, inclusive of all kinds of art forms. For me, awareness of ‘East’ and ‘West’ came after I went to college, when I started to understand Chinese traditions. After I turned to film, I paid much more attention to this issue.
Did you see many films? Which ones had a particular influence on you? We watched a lot of films, every day, of all different genres. But I couldn’t help noticing that, though the history of cinema appears to be very rich, it is also quite simple. That is to say, at first sight, you would see many different filmmakers, different schools and national traditions. However, going over the field in a systematic fashion, you could get a relatively comprehensive understanding, an overall picture of it. Art history is very long, while film history is quite short. With a history of just over a hundred years, cinema is not an old form. Plus, not long after motion pictures came into being, the form had already permeated the culture of people’s daily life. In Europe and America, starting from the 1930s and lasting all the way to the 1970s, cinema reached the peak of its influence, as a vital part of cultural life. Various schools and traditions emerged – American, French, Italian, German and Soviet Russian – each formed by its respective environment and social context. Cinema has its own functions and requirements in each society. For example, film in Soviet Russia went on to become a propaganda instrument, whereas in the United States it quickly turned to serving commercial interests. From the beginning, experimentation and explorations differed from one country to another ; the directions taken by cinematic innovation – both formal artistic features and technical advances – relates to the local socio-cultural history.
At the time you turned to filmmaking in the mid-’90s, Chinese directors were enjoying rising international recognition. Was your own thinking influenced by the Chinese cinema of those years? No, I didn’t pay much attention to that. I don’t much like those films. It is not to say I dislike an individual filmmaker. In fact, although some Chinese films had been winning international prizes since the 1980s, they are culturally still quite barren, lacking in the richness and unpredictability that are characteristic of world-class art. Modern art involves a broadened understanding of life, but I don’t think those films have such a spirit. The reason? In addition to the problem of cultural markers or signposting, it is mainly – in my view – a question of continuing filmmaking within the establishment of the PRC. How about the 1990s filmmakers who sent their works abroad secretly, to participate in film festivals without official approval? Aren’t they relatively independent and no longer making film within the institutional establishment? It is not easy to judge. When I say filmmaking within the establishment, I don’t mean to denounce anyone. What do I mean? It’s simple. Films of the establishment carry some inherent features that are in conflict or contradiction with contemporary culture ; the outlook of the establishment is still there in the films. Therefore, they are not yet contemporary, not really a work of modern civilization. In some ways, this is also due to the history of Chinese cinema.
In discussions with your fellow students, did you focus on technical questions like camera work, or was your attention already turned to filmmaking in general?
Does this mean you also saw a lot of films from the early half of the twentieth century and you view contemporary films in connection to this past?
It was not just about camera work. From the start, our interest was in grasping the whole, instead of particular aspects that had been singled out. The first year was really learning about cinema – about its history, its contemporary development, and its various national traditions. In short, the aim was a comprehensive understanding of film. After working in this way for a whole year, we were able to give a basic summary and evaluation whenever we saw a film. A kind of foundational direction in filmmaking was gradually clarified.
Oh, yes, we saw all the films. Once you are in the field, this is your life and you ought to know them. I’ve always done this – I still watch films every day. This is part of your life as a filmmaker. As for China’s cinema history, when film arrived in China, it was like a seed landing on the soil. It made contact with the people living in this land and they, too, formed their perceptions about it. The Chinese did not take cinema as representing a new civilization, nor did they consider it as another cultural form. If you study the situation, you realize that, for Chinese people at
the time, cinema was not much more than a plaything. It mainly took the fancy of some rich people, who found this new toy quite fascinating. What we have from the early days are shots of random juggling or stage performances. It is not like what happened in Europe. For example, in France, film grew into a new civilization, a very strong cinematic civilization – very different from China’s case. This is how localization worked initially. But Chinese cinema underwent many metamorphoses over time, taking in influences from American, European and Japanese films. The Chinese started to realize that it was not merely a new toy to play with, that it pointed to a new kind of culture. Yet this was also a period when China itself was changing very rapidly ; developments in politics and economy accompanied the history of its cinema. Nowadays conventional formulations would characterize this period as ‘leftist cinema’. But in my view, it could hardly be defined as such. The cinema that developed in Shanghai before 1949 was the most brilliant period in Chinese film history. Watching the films carefully, you can detect a mixture of ideologies behind the scenes, far from the versions in our textbooks. It should be easy for us to consider this period with a calm and reasoned eye, since it is now a historical question. For me, there are three factors at play in the films from this period. There are the works influenced by the international communist movement ; then there are the commercial- and star-centered productions, modeled on Hollywood ; finally there are the ones based on China’s own intellectual tradition. Watching a film, you can find some elements of communist ideology, some expressions of traditional literati morality, and at the same time the dominant star-system at work. Some films appear to be urban avant-garde, and some have traces of French or Italian realism. In fact, most of the films are a mixture. Their different styles are often due to the varied backgrounds of each director.
Most Chinese filmmakers and commentators do not seem to care very much about national cinema history. I think this is a big problem in China. European scholars discuss Chinese cinema from time to time, but with their limited understanding of Chinese society, they couldn’t undertake detailed studies, even if they offer interesting opinions. In contrast, they would invest huge amounts of time and energy in studying the cinema of their own country in the context of its immediate cultural-historical background. The history of national cinema emerges from that type of study. But there is no equivalent work in China. There is a lack of effort – judicious, clarifying, rational effort – in constructing our own history of cinema. Of course we need to understand the history of world cinema and that of other countries. But what is more important is to have a clear view of your own country’s film history, as well as contemporary filmmaking and the socio-cultural order of your own country. What is the nature of film within our overall cultural context today? What is the actual state of cinema right now? As a filmmaker, one has to have the patience to reach a certain self-understanding. This is my view. You returned to the Northeast, to Shenyang, at the end of the ’90s and started shooting West of the Tracks (2002), your epic documentary on the destruction of the rust-belt industrial district there. How did you decide on that theme? I spent more than three years in Beijing, sometimes working on television series or as a cameraman. Then I decided to shoot West of the Tracks. I already knew the industrial district of Tiexi very well. When I was a college student in Shenyang, I often went there to photograph at weekends. Its factories, its workers and residents – I became familiar with the place. On the other hand, the decision also came from a perception about our time: there was a feeling of desolation that reminded me of Tiexi District – the sense that a history which used to be important was now slowly declining, dissolving in front of our eyes. Thereafter, my question was how to tell a relatively coherent story with such a theme and so many characters.
It involved confronting the factory complex, its routine of production and human life? Yes, of course. Having decided on a theme, each filmmaker will then choose different technical approaches. In practice you consider how to deploy your own technical devices to make it viable and that’s all. Many people asked me why my first film is nine hours long. But there are no particular secrets. It’s nothing special for me, personally. I don’t feel anything particular even today. But didn’t you anticipate resistance from your audience? And what were the main problems in making the film? Resistance? I never thought about such things. If you want to make a film, you have to work on it, to realize your plan from start to finish. For me, my job is to get things done. It didn’t involve much exploration of the language of presentation and representation. It was mainly the actual work, practical matters on a daily basis. I didn’t have much difficulty getting into the factories, making friends with workers, and so on. That was all quite simple. The most difficult part of filmmaking is money. You need to shoot every day, to manage a mass of details every day. The work required a continuous input of material resources. Basically my friends and my family supported me. But even so, you still didn’t take potential audience resistance into account? Eh? The cost of a film is a different matter from its box-office returns. It’s not related to that. I don’t think about the box office while making my films. That’s not to dismiss it completely, but the two are not intertwined. When you want to make a film, it is not because you expect an economic profit from it. I am not saying this to defend the purity of ‘art’. The main point is, the two are not related directly to each other. You are working on a project. It is obviously not going to make a big profit. Yet, if you believe it is an important thing to do, then you should go and work on it. It is not something decided by economic considerations.
Later on, you made two more documentaries, Caiyou riji (Crude Oil) (2008) and Tong dao (Coal Money) (2009), which seem to continue the theme of West of the Tracks. Crude Oil lasts for fourteen hours, recording a group of workers at an oil field in the wilderness of China’s northwest Qinghai Province during a cold winter. The screening of the film in Los Angeles was in an exhibition space where the audience could walk in or stray out randomly. In fact, rarely did anyone sit there through the whole screening. It is like a work of installation art. Was that intentional? Yes, it was. It was for the Rotterdam Film Festival. People there wanted to have a section of installation cinema. They came to ask me and I accepted their invitation. It was specially made for the purpose. It did not come with much money. As I was working in the Northwest at the time, for convenience’s sake, I decided to shoot the oil field. These three films are all related to heavy industry or the energy industry. However, in Crude Oil there is little conversation or action, either inside the workers’ lounge or outside by the rig. The monolithic impression of the film is not interrupted even when they do speak or move around, an effect further reinforced by the long shots typically lasting for a few minutes. It is quite different from West of the Tracks, where the viewer has a strong sense of lived life, a previously existing community, as well as the bond to a collective. Is the contrast due to the difference in locations? No, it’s not. This is the changing China. Factories of the past still had a collective spirit. Workers’ lives were related to the factories. For instance, if you were a formal worker here, you would be considered part of the ownership of the workplace. Likewise, people’s daily life was closely related to their work relation at the factory. That is no longer the case for production units today – now there is a contract-labour system everywhere. It is a simple relationship of hiring, often temporary. The oil fields are no exception. In China today, apart from civil servants, everyone is on the contract system. The workplace is no longer intrinsically related to your life.
Therefore, the workers in Crude Oil may have their contracts coming to an end, either this year or next? That’s because of the actual relations of production today. The system has changed, not only in terms of economic relations at the workplace, but that of the whole society as well. When a company decides to hire you, it could be for two months, three months, a year, or three years ; and it will pay you according to how much you work. The film itself documents this. We did not set out to exaggerate or diminish the situation. You can form your own judgement after viewing it, but that comes afterwards from you as a viewer ; it’s not our intention. In Coal Money, you followed the truck that transported coal from Shanxi Province to the port city of Tianjin, to catch sight of how people, from near the coal mine to those along the road, were trying to seize opportunities to change the coal passing through their hands into money. Does this also aim to capture the new times from a slice of our social reality? The film Coal Money is an incomplete project. We shot a lot at the time. But it was done for a television programme in Europe, which only gave me a fifty-minute slot. The producer, a French company, actually understood the problem. They asked me to make a complete version afterwards, but I didn’t have time to go back and work on it again. Within the fifty minutes, it wasn’t easy to narrate a coherent story. It is not a completed work. Would you agree that compared to your longer works, the people in this film are much more lively, often proactive? That’s right. It is the changing nature of our time. We can see that China today is not exactly the same as it was in the years when I shot West of the Tracks. Nowadays, you can see the hardship in people’s lives, but there is also creativity, energy and vigour among ordinary people. You can see that, under the unfavourable conditions of a backward economy, simple production methods and the constraints of the system, the ordinary people are working hard to create wealth through their own labour. It is the flow of life in our time.
Chronologically, your next work after West of the Tracks was Fengming: a Chinese Memoir (2007). Thematically, this work is related to your feature film The Ditch (2010). Both are about the labour camp, Farm Jiabiangou, in Northwest China. The camp was set up to hold the ‘Rightists’ in 1957 and closed down when most of the 3,000-plus prisoners there starved to death during the Great Famine of 1958-60. By the time the government ordered all the detainees to go home in early 1961, only a few hundred still survived. Isn’t this a very different topic from the films we have just discussed? In fact, I turned to the story of Jiabiangou as early as 2004, right after West of the Tracks. I was drafting the script and planning things at the same time as making Crude Oil and Coal Money. My main focus was always on Jiabiangou. It took me seven years to get Fengming: a Chinese Memoir and The Ditch done. The other films were, in a way, by-products that I did in my spare time. Why did you choose this topic and spend so much energy on it? I first learned about the camp from Yang Xianhui’s book, Stories from Jiabiangou. I was shocked. I managed to contact him afterwards. Meanwhile, I went out to collect more materials, do my reading, and conduct interviews. In 2005, Yang Xianhui introduced me to He Fengming. That was when I made the documentary about her. It is obvious to me that Jiabiangou occupies a critical position in China’s modern history. For one thing, the international communist movement was introduced to China almost a century ago. During this whole period its ideology has had a major impact on the people of this country, bringing about tremendous transformations as well as causing sharp conflicts in people’s lives. Jiabiangou itself did not last very long, but it harbours singular significance in our modern history. The camp is very important for us in understanding our own past.
In your documentary, He Fengming tells her own life story. When the PRC was established in 1949, she was an enthusiastic high-school student eager to participate in the Revolution. Less than ten years later, both she and her husband were labelled ‘Rightists’ and sent to separate labour camps. When her husband starved to death at Jiabiangou, she was not even able to pay him a last visit. To protect her children and herself during the Cultural Revolution, she destroyed all written records from the earlier years. But she never gave up her effort to recover their shared memory. Eventually, she was able to publish her memoir in the 21st century. Your film starts by following He Fengming walking through the snow to her home. But thereafter, the camera never moves. It is not exactly in interview form either, for the film does not record any interviewer’s questions. The whole film is basically He Fengming sitting in her chair, speaking to the camera to tell her story, with only a few moments of exception, such as when she stands up to turn on the lights. Was this intentional? Indeed, it was planned in advance. It was decided when we first met with He Fengming. We wanted to make it like that. The actual shooting went on much longer, of course, but the format was the same. 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. Your camera is fixed at quite a distance from He Fengming. Didn’t you consider giving her a few close-ups? Or was it that you didn’t want the camera itself to catch the interviewee’s attention? I don’t think these are problems. Filmmaking can deploy various tactics: close-up or long shot ; camera in view or hidden ; conscious performance or spontaneous reaction. These are not important issues.
The key is your choice. 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. For me, the main concern about this relationship in shooting Fengming: a Chinese Memoir was to make it low-key – to leave it unnoticed, or maybe even banal. But shooting such a film means establishing a connection not just to each story, each character, but to history. In fact, it was a social phenomenon at the time ; many people who had lived through that period wanted to write their memoirs and tell their stories. Why? Because our mainstream culture, the dominant ideology, does not offer them an identity through which they could recognize their own lives across the passage of time. Another question I have been repeatedly asked is why people should trust the old lady’s account. For me, this has never been an issue. I assume she is trustworthy and that is all. A big problem in our social life is the weakening of human relations: from major events to daily contacts our society has evolved into an environment where people do not feel they can trust each other. But this wouldn’t work for me. I don’t approach people with suspicion. No, I needed to establish a relation of trust with her. There was no reason for me not to trust her. Moreover, why couldn’t we simply listen to her? At least, we could learn about another human being, about how she lived her life. In that case, why did you decide to make a feature film of the same story, with The Ditch? As I mentioned earlier, I believe Camp Jiabiangou has a significance for modern Chinese history – while as history it is part of the past, no longer a living aspect of our present. But it was also a personal choice to make it as a feature film instead of a documentary. Though there are still pressures from various directions, we also have spaces and freedoms – it is a question of exploring possibilities. So, why shouldn’t I try to make it as a feature film?
In the narrative processes of Fengming: a Chinese Memoir 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? 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. While making The Ditch, you also made another documentary, Wu ming zhe (Man with No Name) (2010). It appears to be about a new theme, isolation and solitude ; yet it is also a human study. Was this intentional? Formally speaking, in contrast to Fengming: a Chinese Memoir, which records a single person talking through the whole film, Man with No Name does not have any dialogue at all. It was completely accidental that I stumbled into this man. We were taking a break from shooting The Ditch and a friend was driving me around the barren wilderness, when this man came out of nowhere. Somehow I was moved by the way he was living. I think he brought us the experience of his own life. We are living in a time of growing material desires, both individual and as a society. It is a time of hypertrophied desires. Then here is someone who might be the poorest, the loneliest, but also the simplest, someone on his own and pretty much self-sufficient. He lives alone in the wilderness, without contact with other people. He doesn’t need to beg from others. His is a natural state, like grass sprouting in the spring and withering in the autumn. In the process you could see a human’s experience of living at its most basic. It was this that touched me. While shooting Fengming: a Chinese Memoir, I was indeed curious to explore the extent to which language could sustain a film. But the reason for using no dialogue in Man with No Name is rather simple. I asked the man if I could film him, but he would not reply. There was no communication at all. So we went on to film his state of existence.
The theme of basic survival also appears in your latest documentary, Three Sisters (2012). Again, you encountered the three girls by chance. You’ve said elsewhere that you met them when you went to mourn a writer in a remote area of southwest Yunnan Province. How did you become friends with him? The writer’s name is Sun Shixiang. Actually, I did not know him personally before he passed away in 2001, at the very young age of 31. He and I belong to the same generation. He is best known for his novel Shenshi (Story of God), a fictionalized memoir of his own life story, starting from his childhood and published posthumously in 2004. The novel is more than a million characters long. It is rich with all the aspects of human life Sun Shixiang witnessed. In addition to his own story, he tells those of his parents, grandparents, neighbours, relatives. I think he shares the same worldview as me. Moreover, I feel that I, too, have lived the kind of life he tells in his novel. He has effectively told the life story of our generation, from childhood to maturity. It is a lived, sensuous experience as well as a spiritual one. I am not a writer or a literary critic, but I think Shenshi is one of the few really excellent novels in contemporary China. I read a lot of contemporary literature, but many of the works are far removed from our life. I don’t mean personal lives: it is the life that our people are actually going through in this historical period, this national social process. Most works are unable to express this lived collective experience, which is intense but often rich and powerful. To me, these works are simply too naive. I read Sun Shixiang’s novel quite early on, while working on The Ditch. I knew he’d passed away, but I had always wanted to visit his home, to see his parents and his family. I was busy with shooting at the time and was only able to make the trip after The Ditch was done. For me, it was also to visit his tomb and pay my respects to him. How did you meet the three little sisters there? As your film shows, they are living mainly by themselves, without parents to take care of them. Sun Shixiang’s tomb is on a high mountainside. On our way back downhill, we happened to pass this village. We stopped our car there and saw the three children by the road.
This was three years ago, when the eldest sister Yingying was seven and not yet going to school. By the time I started shooting, Yingying was ten, and the two younger girls were about six and four. I started chatting with them, and they took me back to their home and cooked some potatoes for me. It’s like that in the countryside. I am used to the ways of village life ; they don’t feel strange or alien. I don’t feel intimidated or hesitant about going to a stranger’s home in a village. It isn’t a big deal for me. Did the life the three children were living remind you of your own childhood? When I was growing up in the 1970s, life was still very poor in China. Everywhere, across the whole country, people didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. Of course this kind of material poverty left deep impressions in our memory, with many details. Since the ’80s the country has basically been on the path away from this poverty-laden state. From the ’90s on, problems of this sort have gradually been put behind us. Therefore to a certain extent poverty for us is a question of memory. Then when you come to this mountainous region, all of a sudden you’re confronted by the same poverty, right in your face. It is true there was general poverty throughout the country in the 1970s, but wouldn’t you say it is a new phenomenon for parents to leave such small children behind to fend for themselves? Yes, this is a new phenomenon, occurring in a period quite different from the past. This is not to say that people always used to live a happy family life. Instead, it was primarily a state with a high degree of certainty. People’s private lives were restricted by society: you could not easily get a divorce, or go away and leave your family of your own free will. The problem was not merely the ideology: we could see that all our activities were controlled. In those days you couldn’t daydream about leaving, if you no longer wanted to live with your wife or husband. It was actually impossible. You didn’t have the freedom to search for your own personal life. Again, not that people were living very happily in those days. These are two different things.
Crude Oil (2008)
These problems have emerged now, but this is not necessarily completely bad ; to a large extent it is due to economic developments. In fact, with many people working hard their whole lives long, economic relations exert a powerful control over people’s lives – much more powerful than the ideological control of the past. Why? It is simple: look at this small village, poor and remote – all the capable young workers have gone to search for employment elsewhere. You could say that the economy is worse – more horrifying: it exploits people by getting them to make the effort voluntarily, of their own free will. Three Sisters lasts two and a half hours, with many long shots, mainly following the children’s daily life, with limited dialogue and no voice-over at all. Yet the images were so powerful that, when we saw it at a packed theatre, the audience was transfixed from beginning to end. This suggests you have great confidence in the images’ ability to connect with the audience? The film has two versions. One is 90 minutes long, made for a television programme. Usually films for television are about 50 minutes, so this is already quite long. The other version is for theatre and
lasts for 150 minutes. As I said, a film establishes its connection to its audience through the camera. It is not that the images are necessarily very attractive or appealing. I think what matters is the manner in which the filmmaker works. When you keep on watching, when your attention is continuously trained on something, why is it that you want to look at it, and then to show it to your audience? There has to be something people care about, something that carries on growing. The inner richness of the girls’ characters, all those details of their lives – these keep unfolding, offering the audience the chance to reflect on this increasing complexity. The children radiate kindness, instinctively. Even the younger one helps feed the pigs and goats. It is a very poignant, simple relationship between human and animal. Many things in this film are actually very simple, but it brings out the basic realistic side of human life and feeling, through the life and feeling of the children. A rich film is not an advertisement. It says something about human existence, about the basic things in our life. Three Sisters is set in a poverty-stricken environment, but the film as a whole is not about poverty, it is about the lived experience of the girls’ existence.
As your film shows, the father of the three sisters who has gone to work in the city comes back to the village each year to plant potatoes, their main food supply. Yes, and obviously, he has problems. This raises a new issue that has emerged with China’s economic development: a huge number of villagers have moved to the cities, but although their labour has contributed enormously to the urban economy, their wages and their living standards remain low, and so the countryside becomes even poorer than before. After these young labourers have paid for their living expenses in the city, for food, lodging and so on, they have little left. When they return to the village they don’t bring much back with them, after all their back-breaking labour. The girls’ father is not old, but it’s obvious he could have lived a little better if he was on his own. With three children, he can’t save anything in the city, so he has to come back. In that case, the film is not about loneliness, either? In Three Sisters there are invisible constraints. We haven’t said anything about the children’s mother, but she is not part of their daily life – the fact is, she has left the girls on their own for years. We only see their father, and a few other people around their home. But although they appear to be three lonely little figures, they actually live inside the economy of our times. The economy has kidnapped every one of us. In this sense, human relations today are essentially economic relations. The economy assigns the positions people occupy and continuously reinforces them. These positions, in turn, are often invisible. Does this correspond to what we discussed about Crude Oil and Coal Money? Yes and what we see is actually an unspecified social relationship in China today. Do you think that when children like the three sisters grow up, they will be longing for the cities too? It is not that the child will be longing for the city, but that China’s economy is centred in the cities. They are like magnets ; it is not a question of personal will but economic relationships. Actually, it’s not that China’s economy was centred in the countryside in
the past: for a very long time there have been deep distinctions between the rural economy, the urban economy and petty industry ; but these different dimensions maintained a certain balance between them. Now heavyweight economic power is located in the cities, which have become centres of extraordinary wealth. People are drawn to this wealth to make a living, seeking opportunities. The magnet’s energy determines the size of the regions it affects. You once said that in China, only Shanghai has an urban culture ; it doesn’t exist elsewhere – Beijing’s is essentially a political culture, for example. Now that the cities have become such magnets, will this lead to a growing urban culture? Or, alternatively, will culture be thwarted by the hukou residency registration system? I don’t think it will slow down the trend. That comment was made in a discussion on Chinese cinema. China as a nation was based on agrarian civilization ; the social ideology of the majority today, at its core, is still within that frame. As to whether – or how – an urban culture might emerge when most of the population lives in cities, these are questions for a future time. But the cities will orient development, and cinema too can contribute towards urban culture. These changes are bound to come, bringing changes to all the other aspects of our life as well. It’s not a question of whether I want it to change personally. Does this mean you believe cinema has its own vitality? It will change just like other things. Our world has become more and more dependent on the visual image, though we haven’t given it much thought. In the past, images did not play such a crucial role, though we had a rich civilization based on the written word. Rules for composition, word games, narrative genres, descriptions of manners, all were components of a culture created by the application of the written word. The art of the moving image has a much shorter history, but it has expanded and changed at a very high speed. There are many possibilities for contemporary cinema ; it will not be confined to what has been accumulated in our repertoires from the past century. Originally published in New Left Review 82 (2013).
West of theÂ Tracks: Continuing the Journey
West of the Tracks (2002)
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. I would happily use the following slogan, which is truer than ever: “The film is stronger than the spectator.” The DVD release changes the power balance, of course, but it doesn’t reduce the film’s spatial and temporal immensity in any way. So, I reread the notes from Corps et cadre. The idea was to strain them through the sieve of memory so as to see what would remain, what would arise, what would disappear. If it was possible to define one’s own memory, I would simply say that it is pretty weak when it comes to films, books, or music. Writing about a film I know, for example, forces me to watch it again – once, twice, or even more. The same goes for reading or listening. I am entirely in the hands of repetition. The works are entirely in the hands of rebeginning. One. The most intimate part of the way the cinematographic process works is based on forgetting. Both in cinema and in life there are all sorts of forgetting. But in cinema, we first need to look at what I would call mechanical forgetting. Everyone knows that a strip of film consists of a sequence of images called photograms, which are photographs, really, that is to say: still images, separated from each other by more or less fine black lines called interframes. At rest, this strip can therefore show all of its images to the editor, all of them non-animated, ready to be watched one by one. The same is possible by using virtual editing software or an analytical application like Lignes de temps (Timelines), 1 which spatializes the temporal film object. But during the screening, these tools are out of the picture. The projector is an unflappable machine, unrolling the film at a given pace. Only
an accident can stop it. The temporal dimension is key again. The film unrolls, photogram after photogram, and we return to the logic of erasure that is so specific to the cinematographic machine. The strip of images is set in motion by the projector, and through the animation of the strip each image appears on the screen for a brief moment (1/25th of a second), hunted and replaced by the next photogram, and so on. You could say that each photogram (= image in a narrow sense) is forced off the screen by the next one. On the screen, every appearance is only there at the cost of an imminent erasure. And, in turn, the erasure is erased before the new image. That is how the images automatically unroll on the screen. Every appearance passes a disappearance that is not recognized as such (‘forgotten’), a new appearance replacing the old one. The film spectator can’t brag about having seen all the images of a film. In short, forced forgetting. The spectator does not have a choice. Unless we take him out of the movie theatre, unroll the film on an editing table and there, indeed, retrieving some of the control that was lost in the theatre, he will be able to deal with each image separately. During a screening, the images are inseparable. Their passage on the screen is too brief for any spectator to memorize them one by one. The twists and turns of Wang Bing’s film, his fascinating forward tracking shots in which the camera lens merges with the locomotive’s window, his coming and going in the old town’s narrow streets, designed for getting lost, all of it cannot but evoke the materiality itself of the image strip’s adventure when projected. Everything has to do with appearances and disappearances, which is easy to imagine in cinema. Entering and leaving the screen, passing through the frame, lighting changes, everything that is filmed, bodies, substances, objects, falls within the scope of a promise – or a threat – of disappearance or appearance. Cinema is the art of appearance, really, insofar as there is no appearance without disappearance. Incidentally, the ancient and powerful theme of replacing the Old with the New, of the displacement or destruction of an ancient world attacked by modernity, this ‘eternal’ theme is exactly what haunts West of the Tracks, a film haunted by the disappearance of the Old world, the traces left behind, the horror of the change that is coming. Here, the cinematographic story only repeats and reweaves, like
tireless Penelope, the threads of universal history, of the only history that humans have peddled, year after year, from port to port, since forever. Without exaggeration, we could say that cinema, in its own way, puts the Grand Narrative back on its feet. But that is first of all the work of cinema as a camera-machine, its logic of sequencing images combined with the recording of this sequence. A camera works perfectly without a roll of film or a memory card, but nothing is produced and there is no film. Of course, the erasure depends on the recording and that which is not recorded on the silver or magnetic strip, that which does not exist. This essential link between recording and erasure single-handedly explains that in a significant number of cases the so-called ‘documentary’ cinema concerns itself with that which disappears in the world and establishes the belief that a recording could save that which is disappearing from being forgotten. That is, I think, the power of West of the Tracks. We understand that this does not only have to do with the frame developed by the filmmaker, but with the mechanical narrative frame itself. The camera-machine and the cinematographic apparatus function by putting the minimal units of a narrative in place. Fixed/ mobile. Living/dead. On/ off. Appearance / disappearance. The camera tells us how the filmed world is born, dies, and is born again to die again, etc. The projector – of which we’ve known since the beginning, since the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe, that it is exactly like an inversed camera – functions within the same minimal but essential narrative dimension. When a narrative project by a filmmaker, by Wang Bing, meets and marries the minimal narrative motive of the cinema machine, there is a match between that which is filmed and that which films. This intensification makes the story stronger. Two. Well, Grand Narrative. Decay and rebirth. But how can I pass from a memory, which is never just a highly synthetic expression of a whole, to something more precise, to a specific impression, a feature? That is how real cinephile memory could be identified. Not by the memory of the point, the theme, the storyline, the characters, but by the mere reminiscence of a specific sign, which is maybe only addressed to me, which I in any case recognize.
First, it is obvious that Wang Bing’s film exceeds every possibility of non-partial memorization, just because of its duration. One of the effects of certain long-duration films is that their spectator (or spectators) is incapable of remembering everything. This is already the case in the vast majority of the films in which the above-described process of appearance and disappearance prevents most of the spectators from remembering all of the important events, small or large, that happen in just a couple of seconds. Every spectator is partly blind, partly deaf. The film slides across our eyes and ears – and they can only remember a small trace. Forgetting is in the machine and in our heads. The longer the film lasts, the more clearly it is affected by forgetting. You understand that I am turning this conjunction of the powers of forgetting – mechanical and mental – into the very condition of the spectator. A spectator who doesn’t forget anything that has happened in the minutes before the one passing on the screen in front of him would be a divine spectator, rather than a human one. Forgetting has a bad reputation, although it is one of the psyche’s fundamental motives through which the tension between what is not visible anymore and what is not yet visible, between what is open and what is closed, is maintained. Let’s say the magic of cinema is connected to the disappearance of that which appears – the way a magician’s gestures makes the rabbit or hat disappear, in order to plunge them into a kind of forgetting that is seldom permanent. In cinema, that which has disappeared will return one way or another, whether or not changed, sooner or later, in a loop or repeated. The return of the same or the similar is only capable of moving us because of our propensity for forgetting. We recognize that we have forgotten what seems unforgettable to us now. Three. So I haven’t forgotten everything about West of the Tracks, ten years or so after having watched and rewatched the film. What do I remember exactly? Besides what I would call a synthetic memory, of countless ‘walked’ forward tracking shots, the camera handheld rather than on the shoulder, punctuating the film’s nine hours to turn it into a crossing of places, times, and classes, of the very memories of those who enter the film, besides this general memory, one ‘walked’ forward tracking shot is stuck in my head. Night, cold. Snow. The film maker’s crunching footsteps throughout the walk,
lasting exactly as long as the tracking shot. The to and fro of images. I don’t know when and how this image is placed in the film’s mass of memories. Given that I remember it, what does it still say to me? The ‘walked’ tracking shot always keeps track of the walking. In this sense, the use of the Steadycam produces tracking shots with a handheld camera that do not show much of the body holding the camera. A body is missing. Here, it is quite the contrary. The noise of the footsteps, but also the breath of the cameraman, are very much present and inseparable from the image. Held like this, the camera is a reflection of the reality of human presence, laborious and caring, qualities that are put into crisis by most of the bodies filmed in West of the Tracks. The filmmaker is present. The short focal length makes him a partner of the shot. There is an invisible, but tangible presence. What does it mean, the focus on the filmmaker’s invisible body made tangible by the short focal length? That a gesture that is still a desire – human, very human – comes and takes along with it those who are met. The camera remains a ‘human machine’ which functions more like a prosthesis than a machine based on principles other than human feelings. The separation between the filming body and the filming machine has become imperceptible. The camera is a hand, a road, a riverbank you reach. Four. Here’s what I wrote eight years ago: “The main characteristic feature of this film’s style is without a doubt its pretty systematic use of wide angle shots (short or very short focal length). From this ‘technical’ choice, a whole series of consequences, which are not only technical. It is, first of all, important to say that the use of a wide angle is often (I don’t know if it is always the case here) ‘justified’ by a cinematography based on the handheld camera. Indeed, a more open angle of view reduces the jumps or light jerkiness characteristic of a shoulder-held camera or, even worse, handheld at breast height. The shaking of walking discernible in the trembling frame becomes almost imperceptible when using a short focal length. It is an optical law (in photography as well as in cinematography) that links the steadiness of the machine (in other words, of the produced image) with the focal length: the longer the focal length, the more the machine needs to be kept motionless, for fear of trembling or blurring ; the shorter the focal length, the more the cameraman can operate freely,
the angle of view compensating for the inevitable body or hand movements, however controlled. Handheld, the camera thus betrays the movements of the body that holds it: shaking, jerkiness, hesitations, various instabilities are so many signs of the moving body, of gesture, of the hand in motion, and are visually translated by the frame jumping. Indeed, the image thus produced is unstable, floating, oscillating, not very confident. This effect can be explored as a way of showing the filming body in the produced image, its time, its breath, its breathing, its course, etc. No doubt these effects are present and assumed as such in the film. But the very short focal length reduces them. We do not feel the hand anymore ; we hardly feel the walking. How to characterize the movements of the pupil?” By getting back to the example of this handheld forward tracking shot, which for me has become, without any doubt, the condensation of all of the handheld tracking shots in the film, I understand that remembering a stylistic element like this one, reverts to giving a (maybe imaginary) form to what was perceived and received already as a form. Let’s say the forms are transmitted and thus create memories. Five. Another example: I remember the astonishing – very wide – long shot of a square covered in small coloured and torn up pieces of paper: raffle tickets of a local lottery, if I remember correctly. A shot that ‘wide’ requires a very short focal length. At the time of writing about West of the Tracks, this omnipresence of short focal lengths had alerted me: “We need to add to this the key effect of the short focal length: a vaguely circular image falls into place in the rectangle of the frame. The edges, the foreground, the image’s geometrical structure tend to distend from the centre towards the edges (it is called ‘barrel distortion’). This distortion can only evoke the grimace of a wide-open mouth. It is the oral dimension of the image played upon by the short focal length. I swallow you, spectator, the way you swallow the world. That which is swallowed, devoured, or gobbled, is precisely the right distance between the machine and the body, between me, the spectator, and the filmed other.”
I had very well seen the effect of the short focal length (how not to remember: the whole film is like that), and more precisely the reformulation of the eye’s work as roundness, of an orality, but my remarks missed the main reason why Wang Bing had adopted this course. Technique determines style and gives form to what is at stake in the film, also politically. In the principle of the very short focal length, we encounter the idea of covering as much space as possible in the film ; of expanding or extending the frame as much as possible ; at the same time of restricting the off-screen area or, rather, of confusing it with the ‘off scene’: the new town that is constructed out of our sight. We don’t see it ; we can only imagine it. It is kept on the edge of the frame, like a threat too huge to be filmed. So there is more or less only frame in this film, which causes us to see – or feel that we see – everything there is to be seen, all the playing bodies: a world inhabited by human beings, by co-workers, by members of the same family, of the same streets. The wide frame allows us to include the whole little world of living beings that is doomed to disappear, to be erased from the system of forms it is captured in – that is the film’s political point. There will be no more ‘overall view’ in the world that will come on top of the factory and old-town alley ruins. Because there will be no more ‘overall’. It is clear that the dimension of the possibility of an overview is given by the characters themselves, who are both lost and sorry. By choosing to ‘film widely’, Wang Bing welcomes us in a field that ignores the probability of exclusion. It is a return to the cinematographer’s original values. Everyone could be seated in a movie theatre as well as be seen on the screen. In this sense, Wang Bing’s generously open eye (and ear) only makes the mutation of the filmed beings more terrifying than I noticed at the time: both for the inhabitants of this neighbourhood and the workers or the future unemployed of the factories and trains, the cinema that filmed them can only accept and recognize a trivialization and renunciation of any ‘positive image’ of themselves. The filmmaker and his camera are not considered special or, even less so, magical entities. Being filmed no longer means being challenged to prove your qualities. The so-called documentary cinema, filming the people, has for a very long time tended, when it comes to the subjects invited to be filmed who often found themselves exactly that, subjects, towards an implicit demand to be more than themselves, a request to
excel, to involve a sort of narcissistic ‘superego’. With this film, we have advanced beyond that, and those who are filmed demonstrate no discomfort or shame at all to not appear at their shiniest best. The answer to the open, generous, all-encompassing frame is a certain indifference by the filmed for the film they appear in. This way, the end of Maoism – also one of the political meanings of this film – would be like a loosening of the censorship that kept bodies righteous and honourable (cf. the series by Joris Ivens: Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes ). From now on, any man (or woman) in the film is a man (or woman) without qualities. (I feel like saying, “so much the better!” – but good feelings don’t make for good films). Previously, only fictional films introduced despicable characters (Batala/Jules Berry in Le crime de Monsieur Lange). And the so-called documentary cinema gave back some dignity to the ‘lack of cinema’ it filmed. Six. This is what I wrote then: “Today, there is a tendency in documentary cinema: it is no longer (no longer only) about filming the wandering of characters who’ve appeared in real life, their way of carrying out the coming-of-age journey in the form of a ‘road movie’. The time of coming-of-age stories has passed. Wandering (cinematographic as well as narrative) supposed the construction of subsequent places, reached or crossed one by one, as the character and the film progress. The metaphor of the road you cross prevailed. We change metaphors. Or even better: there are no more metaphors. In the most important recent documentary films, the wandering is destructive, no longer constructive. The places in which the bodies move around, which aren’t bodies of real ‘characters’ anymore but of ‘extras’, are being destroyed. Confinement is no longer possible (No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) by Pedro Costa ). The outside floods the inside. But in this porosity, there seemed to be no more outside: it is always in the process of being deconstructed. In the same way, the characters of the workers roaming Wang Bing’s film are not the wanderers in a labyrinth of light and shadows that would be evoked by poetry’s usual embrace. Everything that appears, rest rooms, engine rooms, homes, appears as if it is disappearing. To see is to accept the destruction of what you discover by seeing it. The gaze is suspense, threat, powerless conspiracy of an irresistibly destructive
power. You don’t get lost on the road ; it is the road itself that gets lost. The world collapses, with its known places, its marks, its boundaries, its thresholds between inside and outside. The heat of the factory’s belly is caught by the ice of winter. Man is one of the pieces that fall apart. That is what cinema says to us, that the coming world is the world of debris we find around clean slates. Cinema unfolds the conviction of catastrophe as that which submerges us with incomprehensible feelings. “West of the Tracks is not only an extreme cinematographic experience, not only an exceptional document on the sociology of a region of contemporary China: we see it as a confirmation of a new dimension of community living, of cinema’s new place. Here, to film is not only to bear witness to a sinking, disappearing, radically changing world. There is something else: the men and women playing in this film experience a new relation to cinema, redefining it, a new relation to the spectators, changing them. For a long time, to enter into a documentary cinematographic relation, meant having the chance to assert yourself, to regroup as a complex (and often idealized) reality, to give yourself a real social role by becoming an actor of yourself and the world. What we discover, alarmed as we are, is at what point the new man appearing before our eyes in this film, is different from the human character which was shaped by cinema and to which we grew accustomed. Here, no more hope, no more illusions, a profound crisis of our confidence in the world and in others: immeasurable defeat and infinite disappointment, which are primarily expressed by the indifference to their image of those who play. Beyond narcissism? If cinema had been invented and continues to exist among us as one of the forms of the need for a collective utopia, this film opens up a new era, the era of the collapse of the cinematographic superego that is at the same time a crisis of the spectator’s place.”
I had not, therefore, very well seen the political dimension of a cinematography of the long shot. But the memory of this form keeps it going, all the way to my new comments. (It is important to mention that we increasingly film in long shots since the simultaneous broadcasting of advertising images and television screens. I maintain that there is no miseen-scène unless the risk is taken to pass through the long shot.) Seven. How to understand what escapes us when watching a film? (Without spending years on the couch of an analyst, I would like to add.) Let’s simplify my answer: the whole process of connecting and disconnecting between the age of the destruction of the old world and the Maoist era that was this ‘old age’, this whole process does not fail to touch (to touch the hearts, I mean) of those who, like me, have lived the ‘Maoist years’ and have believed that a ‘permanent revolution’ was a necessity (I still believe it, if only to question any order). I did not forget this film. I did not completely remember it either. Between memory and forgetting, cinematographic forms pass and leave an impression. It is part of the essence of cinema to bring the past into the present and to open the present onto a future both unimaginable and unspeakable. A future, however, that still remains the cinephile’s hope.
ore information about this software, its history, and M how it works, is available on the website of IRI, Centre Pompidou.
Originally published as ‘A l’ouest des rails : suite du voyage’ in Images Documentaires 77, July 2013. Translated by Sis Matthé
Fengming, Anchor of China In Conversation with Julien Gester
Three hours of static shots and one testimony of a survivor of Mao’s purges, that’s all Wang Bing needs to dig into the suppressed memory of the Cultural Revolution. The voice of Fenming is patient, cautious and her words, though occasionally interspersed with phlegmatic tears, seem matured by an infinite modesty. For three hours, this nearly immobile little lady looks at us and narrates half a century of intimate contact with China’s abominations. Little by little, the fifteen-something long static shots dusk, as the night plunges into her story and the apartment. Facing Fengming and examining her through his deployment of lenses is Wang Bing, the new titan of documentary film – a title bestowed on him since his 2002 monster film West of the Tracks, which wanders the ruins of neo-capitalist China corroded by rust and economic obsolescence. In front of Wang Bing’s impassible camera, Fengming, who wrote her memoirs recalling her passages in the gulags of the People’s Republic of China, the laogai. Both lucidly and utterly literary, Fengming narrates her life story. First, ingenuous enthusiasm in 1949 – she’s 17 and prefers the grey uniform
of the early revolution above her former dresses. Subsequently, innocent disbelief when eight years later she hears the accusations of ‘Rightist’ conspiracy, the public abuses of the executives of the Party. Finally, her deportation to a camp, where she’s separated from her husband and for a long time longs for a reunion, until she learns of her husband’s death in one of the most horrendous colonies for ‘re-education through labour’ in the Gobi desert. Modestly sobbing, she pours out her heart and speaks of their love, which became ‘softer’ when confronted by the torments of the regime. She also talks about the Cultural Revolution that followed and its new cortege of horrors, the terrible impossibility of mourning... Of a paralysing simplicity, this immense film proves to be the only one to document the ‘Anti-Rightist’ campaign of the 1950s and its ravages, from deportation to anthropophagy, which remain an absolute taboo. An era that, according to Wang Bing, in its monstrous obstinacy of rewriting both present and history has only left spectres as its survivors and witnesses.
Julien Gester: Whence your particular interest for the ‘Anti-Rightist’ movement, which is a period less well-known in the West? Wang Bing: It was a crucial ideological moment in the history of the new China. This movement aimed at consolidating all Chinas into one and it has profoundly changed the way of thinking of the Chinese, the relationships between them. Confidence disappeared, people became hostile and freedom of speech was placed under total control. Today, it is still forbidden to mention this period. Nevertheless, from the 1990s on, some intellectuals have felt the need to rethink this period and write about it. There are multiple channels to evade censorship in China. But cinema is still under heavy control, so it’s impossible to see films that evoke this period. What’s the explanation for this exceptional status of cinema? In the tradition of socialist regimes, cinema has always been considered a vehicle for propaganda. In China this is still the case today. There’s less focus on what is written, it’s also more difficult to control. In fact, censorship is integrated in the structure of the Chinese cinema industry and it imposes its taboos, its official version of history. There are no written rules about what’s allowed to be said, but that vagueness is only there in order to reinforce the omnipotence of censorship. How did you conceive your documentary on Fengming? 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.
How do the Chinese of her generation relate to contemporary China? Their bodies sojourn in the so-called present, but all of their spirit and mind is glued to the past. There is no relation whatsoever between them and modern society, the gap is insurmountable and there’s no reconciliation possible. It is an insoluble conflict. I wanted my film to be a bridge between our time and the past in which these people live. While shooting Fengming: a Chinese Memoir (2007), you were preparing your first (clandestinely shot) fiction film, The Ditch (2010), which takes place in the laogai. For you, what are the differences between making fiction films and documentary films? For me, there are very little differences, the essence of cinema remains the same, the borders are porous. The documentary image is very forceful and has fed contemporary fiction. Inversely, I have the impression that contemporary documentary films have absorbed a lot of the codes from fiction. Have you seen the films of Claude Lanzmann? Only Shoah. But, for me, what he has realised is unequalled, unique. My cinema is chiefly based on images of the present. I would rather associate my approach with Numéro zéro (1971) by Jean Eustache, where he films his grandmother. How are the relations between the different figures of the independent cinema of your generation? Concerning myself, I have a very solitary trajectory and I have very little contact with other filmmakers. And the notion of generations of Chinese filmmakers, whether it be a fifth or a sixth generation, seems ineffective to me. That classification is a construction by the governmental cinema system, concerning people like Zhang Yimou [who made Hero in 2002]. It doesn’t have anything to do with people like me, who edit their films abroad and shoot them clandestinely, fearing police raids.
Originally published as ‘« Fengming », ancre de Chine’ in Libération, 7 March 2012. Translated by Veva Leye
Three Sisters (2012)
Fire in Every Shot:
Wang Bing’s Three Sisters Thom Andersen
“Films have no interest unless one finds something that burns somewhere within the shot.” – Jean-Marie Straub –
Wang Bing’s Three Sisters (2012) tells a simple story. Three sisters, aged four, six, and ten, live like orphans in Yunnan province, in the village of Xiyangtang (elevation: 3,500 feet ; population: 80 families). Their mother has abandoned the family. The father, Sun Shunbao, has gone to the city to work. So they fend for themselves, cadging meals from their aunt, who tolerates them so long as they work. The father returns, but only briefly, bringing new shoes but taking the two younger sisters to live with him in the city and leaving the eldest, Yingying, to stay with her grandfather, Sun Xinliang. He tends his sheep, and she is left alone, and lonely. She even turns a sheet of cellophane into a toy. She asks a friend, “Can I come to your house to play?” He responds, “Why?” The grandfather takes her to an autumn feast in a nearby village. Afterward there is a town meeting. The mayor tells the assembled villagers that the government is intent on collecting the health insurance fees they can’t afford to pay. The people also complain about the government’s ‘rural revival’ program: “They’re building these fancy new houses, and meanwhile the villagers can hardly afford to eat.” Some months later, the father returns again, this time to stay. He was unable to support his family in the city. The family is reunited, except for the mother. In her place, Sun brings a ‘babysitter’ and her daughter Yanyan. The final words belong to Zhenzhen, the six year-old sister: “Kids who have a mommy are the happiest in the world.” Then the final shot: a long tracking shot, without words, follows the babysitter and her daughter as they walk through the snow-pocketed mountains. There is no title at the end to relate the subsequent fortunes of the family.
This is direct cinema, and so there are some gaps in the narrative. The ‘city’ is unnamed, and the father’s struggles there unspecified. The story begins sometime in 2010 and ends sometime in the winter of 2011, but its precise duration is uncertain. The fields are green at the beginning. Is it spring, perhaps? Or summer? How long is Yingying left alone between the father’s two visits? What is the reason for her persistent coughing? What happened to her studies at the village elementary school we see her attend with great enthusiasm for at least one day in November 2010? Did her work in the fields take precedence? A simple story, but as Straub demands, there is fire in every shot. In many shots, this is true in the most literal sense. All the huts have open fires at the centre for cooking, for heat, and for light. Wang keeps these fires at the bottom margin of the frame just as he places the open doorways that blast a white light into the shots of dark interiors and the unshaded light bulbs that emit an intense yellow light at the top edge or side of the frame. These literal and metaphorical fires must not dominate the frame ; otherwise their intensity would be diminished. 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.
28 Three Sisters (2012)
It burns in the division between land and sky, which is particularly stark here. The horizons are always placed high in the frame. The earth has been graded into simple terraces, turning it into an almost abstract landscape. Wang further emphasizes these horizontal divisions by making startling cuts between extremely dark interior shots and extremely bright landscape shots, or between day and night. Even the grey skies have a penumbra of blue and violet along the horizon, separating them from the fields below. A hard life, but a big sky. Straub’s admonition was inspired not only by Cézanne, who famously said of Mont Sainte-Victoire, “Look at this mountain, once it was fire,” but also by Giotto, the Giotto of the Scrovegni Chapel frescos, which Straub discovered by chance when he was 18. There it is the blue that burns, that penetrates. Wang’s colours are closer to Giotto than to Cézanne: the blues of the sky and the smoke, the golds and reds of the fires in the huts that are like the halos and the crimson robes in the frescos. Like Giotto, Wang finds a clear, almost transparent skin colour, and he sets off the faces of the sisters against the darkness that envelops their hut outside the vicinity of the central fire. But they are not ‘Straubian’ shots. Wang’s camera is always handheld. (It should be noted that there are two other names in the camera credits, Huang Wenhai and Lei Peifeng ; I don’t know the division of labour among them, but I have assumed that Wang directed the camerawork.) The camera height must be low so that he doesn’t look down on the three young girls. When Wang follows them as they walk through the village and the surrounding fields, the camera must be behind them. Consequently we see the vistas before them, but I found myself more
engaged by their work, whether it be herding sheep or collecting dung. Sometimes the camera wavers violently as the land becomes particularly uneven ; apparently Wang made do without a Steadicam. But like the Straubs, Wang searches for the ‘strategic point,’ the single position from which all the action of the scene can be recorded. Caroline Champetier, who worked with the Straubs on Class Relations, has aptly expressed what is at stake in this search: “All the work comes in attempting to respect the existing space, as intelligently as possible, to render account of its lines of force ; it is important not to falsify the lines.” The difficulty for Wang was discovering this point in the cramped rooms of a small hut. What are the lines of force? They are defined, first of all, by sources of light, the fires, and the doorways, the television set in the aunt’s house. Beyond these, the camera finds slight diagonals that emphasize the same few possessions, bowls, a stool, or a basket. Outside it is a matter of finding the right distance from the people and knowing when to stop to let them move off into the distance. For Wang, the camera must not be too close: the people are always shown full figure. Only when they stop will he sometimes move in for a closer shot, and these shots provide the strongest sense of exhilaration in the film. I’ve tried to praise some aspects of Three Sisters, but for all that I’ve thought and written about it, I still can’t explain why I have the feeling that I could watch these people forever, although the more I watch the film, the more Yingying breaks my heart.
Originally published in Cinema Scope 54 (2012).
“Those that work the most don’t own anything”
Three Sisters (2012)
In Conversation with Didier Péron
Wang Bing, 47 years old, won’t take off his down jacket during the entire interview, which takes place in a Parisian apartment on a spring day. He answers the questions at length, in contrast to a former interview in 2003 at the time of the release of West of the Tracks, when he proved to be far more reticent. Modest, he’s amazed by this retrospective in Beaubourg – “in cinema circles, I’m still unimportant”. Nevertheless, he presents his astounding films at the most important festivals. In September, he was in Venice for 'Til Madness Do Us Part, a three hours fifty minutes immersion in isolation and in open air, in a psychiatric hospital in Yunnan.
they returned after some time. These migrant workers are the pillars of China’s economic development. They create the country’s wealth but will never enjoy even the smallest part of it. When they return, they are still as poor as when they left. Those that work the hardest don’t own anything. Historically, it’s the continuation of an enduring process: resources from upstream zones have been snatched away and used in downstream zones, and there is no cycle of redistribution like there is in nature.
Didier Péron: Why did you choose to film in the southern province of Yunnan?
You can say that it has come to nothing. Communism has always preached the unity of proletarians all over the world, but in reality this union never came about. Instead, it’s the capitalists that have united. Money has traversed frontiers, which has led to a consensus of globalisation. The material interests of the richest people have gained importance at the expense of democratic values and principles of liberty.
Wang Bing: Because the disruption of the Chinese economy and society doesn’t really take place along the Yellow River – that’s to say, in the north, where I shot West of the Tracks ten years ago. The epicenter of cultural, human, political and economic change in China takes place along the Yangtze River in the south. China’s political economy begins in Shangai and gradually ascends along the river, passing enormous cities, like Nanjing, Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu. It traverses Yunnan, which for a long time was one of the most neglected provinces of the land and nowadays gets important development investments. In Three Sisters, we see the incredible destitution of the farmers who live in the mountains. Where does this poverty come from? In the film you see that the mountains are totally deforested. In former times, they were covered with tropical forests. When I talked with the eldest villagers, they talked about forests abundant with wild boars and snakes, luxuriant nature, resembling a mythical land destroyed by the hand of man. On the one hand, the aim of this deforestation was to gain agricultural lands. On the other, the wood from Yunnan is commercialised throughout China. Moreover, this zone is very rich in copper, which is very important for the production of coins. And, throughout the centuries, the wood was also used as firewood for the foundries. Most of the villagers in the film went away to work in the big cities ; but often,
However, redistribution was the political foundation of communism…
There are a lot of scenes of meals, and one gets the impression that every plate is counted. Are there still food shortages today? The famines of the past have gone, but foodstuffs are not very diversified because that particular family grows potatoes for the most part. If they want to eat rice, they have to buy it. When we went to the village, at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters, we brought sacks of rice with us. Watching the film, one can sense your fascination with Yingying, the oldest of the three girls, because of her autonomy, her silence, her rebellious beauty… 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. I grew up in a village and, like her, I have been both farmer and shepherd until the age of 14.
32 Three Sisters (2012)
Every day, I worked on the fields, pulled out the weeds and fed them to the animals. Yingying has the perseverance of weeds: she grows on her own, has no one to count on. How’s your financial situation, given the fact that your films are mainly screened at festivals and circulate in China only on pirate DVDs? My films are made with very little financing and their exploitation doesn’t bring in much. Even the revenues from Europe are minimal. For example, I still haven’t received even a centime from the DVD sales of West of the Tracks (MK2 Editions). Sometimes, I receive royalties or screening rights to the amount of a hundred euros. The festival career of Three Sisters (Orizzonti prize in Venice, ‘Montgolfière d’or’ at the Trois Continents festival in Nantes, Audience Award at DocLisboa) has yielded some rewards, which were often sums of money that I immediately used to finance the shooting of 'Til Madness Do Us Part. In 2010 I became ill, and I wasn’t able to work until 2011. Wang Yang, my partner, and I depended on loans from friends. The medical costs were high and I didn’t have any savings to protect me against that kind of situation. It was very difficult, to such an extent that having even 10 yuan in our pocket became a challenge. Do you think China will socially explode, confronted with its difficulties and the aggravation of its inequalities? No. Actually, if you look at the past, say the 20th century, you’ll see that disarray has succeeded disarray at a very steady pace. At the end of the Manchu dynasty, China plunged into total chaos. The economy exploded and people suffered from famines. Subsequently, there was the era of the Republic of China: three quarters of the population didn’t have clothes to cover their body nor food to survive.
Then the nationalists were driven out and we chose the communists. They proposed the ideal of an egalitarian redistribution of resources, which was very fascinating for the intellectuals. But utopia turned into totalitarianism and, once more, the country faced violent situations and extreme poverty. Nowadays, we have a totalitarian system that imposes the burden of brutal changes on one section of the population. We are in a situation where the economy is administered and economic competition is falsified. A potential social explosion is impossible without a political collapse. But I think that the Party has the means to avoid any such downfall and to guarantee the proper functioning of the economic chain. Can you explain what you mean when you say that “the burden of brutal changes is imposed on one section of the population”? The logic of our development is not like that of other countries. That’s why in the West one speaks about apocalyptic situations. But the Chinese population has a different view on things. To answer more directly to your question, I’ll take the example of real estate. For many years now, there is the phenomenon of a bubble of speculation on an extremely large scale. Everybody is aware of it, but still there are many buyers of apartments, many people who invest in this sector. Certainly, there is an actual need for housing, for offices. But a lot of banks grant credit arrangements that are very irresponsible. This superficial prosperity leads to an ultra-rapid augmentation of prices in the cities and it’s precisely the poorest people who are the victims of this inflation. Unbridled real estate exploitation enriches certain people but enfeebles many others.
Originally published as ‘Ceux qui travaillent le plus ne possèdent rien’ in Libération, 15 April 2014. Translated by Veva Leye
'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)
The Denied Identity of the Nameless Voices Eugenio Renzi
Wang Bing entered cinema history ten years ago on a freight train with a DV camera, filming from the driverâ€™s window the snowy landscape of a disused industrial complex. At the end of the filming of West of the Tracks, the warehouses were already empty and even the workers who dismantled the lines were already gone. The last shot made them reappear as ghosts in the belly of the factory, in the act of
washing themselves together after the workshift, as it was once. For a moment, the linear time of History left space for the circular time of memory. Already in that first film, Wang Bing had as the object of his cinema the totality of things and, as subject, individual characters in whom the peculiarity (particularity) of each one of them and the history of the country reciprocally define each other.
'Til Madness Do Us Part, presented out of competition, was almost entirely filmed in a psychiatric hospital, in just three months. The institute, where people are interned at the request of the family, court or police, is located in a poor region of southwestern China, Yunnan, thousands of kilometers away from the Tiexi factories. Still, the impression of finding in the characters and places one more episode of the epic end of heavy state industry is strong and also, ten years later, an answer to the question: what has become of those workers now that the work is no more? The building is on two floors. On the first, where we will not set foot, are the women. Wang Bing invites himself to the second, reserved for the men, with the same deceptive easiness with which he had entered the factories of Tiexi (his tactic is to not ask for any official authorisation, which would certainly be rejected). All the cells are open, like Chinese rural houses. Instead of the street there is a corridor that runs around the perimeter, overlooking the inner courtyard. From the railing up to the roof, an iron grid prevents the patients from throwing themselves into the void but allows them to make, from one floor to the other, sexual propositions that are as jaunty as they are impossible. Here, where the patients camp, wash themselves, urinate, smoke, cuddle, or insult each other, we spend with them the most of the four hours of 'Til Madness Do Us Part. Despite being only part of the whole, the circular terrace metaphorically represents the whole psychiatric hospital and every mental illness. In one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie, a young patient runs the perimeter one, ten, twenty times, stopping from time to time, forcing himself to continue, as if the circle, instead of bringing him to the same exact spot, could lead him to the exit, once. Sometimes, it happens. Towards three quarters of the film, Zhu Xiaoyan, discharged, returns to his family. Wang Bing follows him. Even more isolated at home than in the hospital, Zhu wanders, as they say. Like a madman, through the countryside devastated by bricks and concrete, he disappears in the night, walking on a highway. You cannot leave the corridor ; it embraces the whole country...
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. The tool through which Wang Bing achieves this goal is time. Focusing on five or six characters, the film gives itself time to make them exist. And offers us – the audience – the time to get rid of the filters through which we are used to conceive images. Thought in terms of situations and meaning, the film could be edited into a 30 minutes version. It would be then a collection of pornographic images: a man who urinates, one who smokes the filter of a cigarette butt, one who swears because he has been abandoned, one that crushes imaginary flies, one that hugs a woman through a grid, two men that sleep in the same bed. But Wang Bing does not film isolated actions. He tries to convey the language in which each character embodies a story. The four hours of the film flow easily because the duration is what the viewer needs, to stop judging and start looking. This is why Wang Bing does not introduce them immediately: the credits with their names (and the duration of their confinement) are a reward that comes only after we become familiar with the person in question. After a fair time, the time we need to start listening to them.
Originally published as ‘L’identità negate delle voci senza nome’ in Il manifesto, 6 September 2013. Translated by Michael Blanga-Gubbay
'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)
Alors, la Chine In Conversation with Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi: What made you film at the mental hospital of 'Til Madness Do Us Part? Wang Bing: It was autumn 2002, in Beijing, during the editing of West of the Tracks. One afternoon, because I felt very tired, I decided to take a break and go for a walk with friends. During our walk, we visited a mental hospital in the north of Beijing. Its architecture is in 1950s Soviet style. There are a lot of trees. Everything around it is countryside. No one seemed to be there that day. The doors were open. The wind was strong, and the leaves from the trees made their way into the hallways... As if no other human being had ever entered the place.
Neither doctors nor patients? It’s a figure of speech. To me, the hospital seemed mysterious ; you would have thought that it was empty, that no patients lived there... In any case, we didn’t see any. We went into the courtyard. Because the door of the building was open and because we heard cries, we wanted to go upstairs. Metal bars separated the different corridors. The patients were there, but we couldn’t approach them. We knocked on a door. A nurse came to meet us. We told her some lie so that she would allow us to take a look at her floor, where about twenty-four patients had been institutionalized for a long time, for about twenty or thirty years.
When I approached them, I started thinking about a film that would take place in a place like that. I regularly returned to the hospital afterwards ; but alas, we weren’t able to get permission to film there. In 2004, I proposed the subject to the Cinéfondation. Those in charge were all for it, but in the end The Ditch replaced this project. What story did you tell to the nurse so that she would let you come up? We pretended we were visiting a family member. What was it that aroused your curiosity and interest to the point of wanting to dedicate a film to it? 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... Really? Don’t you think that it is quite the opposite: that the common stories happen on the outside and not on the inside of mental hospitals? 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. Every Chinese citizen needs to have a residence permit in a fixed place. The patients have a residence permit in the hospital. 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. One day, I saw something moving: the patients were busy modelling concrete-and-bamboo panda sculptures. Suddenly, a feeling of human warmth took hold of me, and I understood that this feeling was in fact the way I felt about the whole hospital. I had an epiphany. In the courtyard, there was also a large concrete sculpture of a rooster, which rose above the tree right next
to it, a pine tree or a cypress. It was really strange. I did not know if this statue had been made by workmen or by the patients. All these elements interested me and made me think. I figured the patients had their own point of view on the world outside, their own philosophy... As I said earlier, I went back to this mental hospital in the north of Beijing on a number of occasions. In 2004, many patients were clearly old, but still in good health. By 2009, a large number of them had died. By talking with the nurses, I learned that their families hadn’t visited them when they were dying. Maybe they hadn’t been informed. Death is a strong presence in the collective life of an asylum. That might seem paradoxical: the isolation in which the patients die is often greater if they die at home, with their family. Within a family, you can feel lonely to the point of having the impression that you don’t exist, whereas those who live in an asylum are part of a group ; they have company. They are taken care of, they meet new people, they build new relationships... Who are the institutionalized patients in the Beijing hospital? The majority were institutionalized at the time of the Cultural Revolution, between 1960 and 1980. Some of them come from cities, but most of them are farmers. The hospital of 'Til Madness is located in Yunnan and most of its patients were institutionalized from the 1980s onward. The rare few patients who arrived before this date, if there are any, are dead. The ones you see in the film are generally migrant workers whose crises were triggered at work. Some of them are students who experienced fits of madness when passing the admission test at university. Others still are from the area ; I don’t know the reason they are considered mad... It happens that their environment – their parents, their brothers and sisters, sometimes their children – decided to have them institutionalized because of a conflict, or just because they don’t have a wife or a job and are too old for their family to still want to take care of them. Some of them have come into contact with the law. They have killed, been involved in drug trafficking, broke the law in one way or another... It’s a hospital, but also a sort of social sanatorium where, among others, the ‘complainants’ are sent, those whose claims have, after a while, tired
the police or the law, which has then decided to just get rid of them… The male patients in particular. As for the women, who stay on the floor above the men’s floor, the reasons can be varied as well. Some of them are labourers whose crises have also been triggered at work ; most of them are victims of the one-child policy. They suffered so much pressure after the birth of their second or third child that a lot of them went mad. You talk about the male and female patients, although 'Til Madness Do Us Part only shows the men. Why have you made this choice? It’s far simpler for men to film other men. Filming psychotic women is very complicated. You never know how they are going to react. And we didn’t have enough time to do it anyway. Nonetheless, I discovered that one of the men, Pu Changyi, had an affair with an instutionalized woman at the hospital. As a victim of the one-child policy, she went mad after the birth of her second or third child. And one of her children experienced some crises as well... Was it easy for you to get access to the hospital and film there? The doctors appeared to be pretty kind. Shared friends had introduced me by explaining that I wished to direct a documentary about the hospital. They accepted. So, the authorization issues we experienced in Beijing were quickly taken care of. It was, of course, a big relief and a delight. That was in May 2012. The editing and subtitling of Three Sisters was barely finished then. What are the main differences between the two hospitals, of Beijing and Yunnan?
live in. They don’t have the right to move around the building. They can look out the window, breathe or listen to the surrounding noise: that’s it. In the beginning, I had difficulty adapting to this hospital, exactly because of its differences to the Beijing one. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure if it was the right location to film, and I wasn’t sure either if I really felt like it... In the end, I decided it was worth a shot, as we had the luck of having the permission to film. The shoot started on 3 January 2013. When I arrived, I didn’t know anyone. The first three days, I walked around and chatted with the patients. At the same time, I had to think about how to film the location. After six or seven days, I saw more clearly where to start. Several problems arose, especially the choice of the characters and the narrowness of the corridor, no more than one table wide. When you watch the film, you might have the impression it is wider than that because the metal gate around it is transparent. But it really was very narrow. My worries weren’t connected to the content but rather to the camera and, more specifically, to its very sensitive lens. Starting to film really was a tall order. We lacked space. Patients approached the lens sometimes, blocking our view... It was really difficult to find the right distance towards them. We also depended on the daylight because our cameras did not adapt well to darkness... 'Til Madness is a film in which all our technical weaknesses are exposed. We had the right to enter and film, but that didn’t mean we could do whatever we wanted. I wanted to start constructing a story pretty quickly, but I didn’t know how to do it. This narrative difficulty made me lose hope for a while. How did you get out of this difficulty?
The first one is larger than the second one. There is a certain amount of comfort there, despite all its barred windows. The rooms have different sizes and appearances ; there are hallways, public television... The patients have some space ; they can walk in the courtyard, among the trees... The Yunnan hospital, on the other hand, has only one building and one tree. The patients live at a height, where they are stuck, like in a cage: it looks as if they are hanging above the city. Only air and light can freely enter the place they
After about ten days, I had a first list of characters in my head that I was determined to film, even if it changed afterwards, of course. There was Ma Jian, the boy you see running around the corridor several times ; the ‘mute’, whose name we don’t know, an orphan who grew up on the streets dumpster diving in order to feed himself, and who was taken to hospital one day by someone who found him, alone and abandoned. There was Ma Jian Rong and his roommate who smokes like a chimney ; Ma Yunde, whose
wife regularly visits ; Song Shenyong, the old man who has been institutionalized for the last twenty years and whom we see giving a cigarette to those who wash his feet... Zhu Xiaoyan, who leaves the hospital for New Year’s Eve and is followed to his house, was not part of this initial list. When his mother came to pick him up, I decided to film him. Overall, I wished to show little groups of two or three characters, for example Ma Yunde, his wife and Ma Jian Rong’s roommate. These three interested me a lot. Ma Yunde’s wife is modest, very sweet, and very attentive to everyone. During her weekly visits, she never forgot to bring something for her husband and his roommate. The other patients respected her, even those who could otherwise be very aggressive. It was without a doubt because of her charm. Her husband had been at the hospital for almost fifteen years. His institutionalization had happened three months after the birth of their second son. The first one goes to school, but the second one is also ill, mentally disabled. This woman has to face considerable pressure ; her daily life on the outside of the hospital is probably more difficult than her husband’s life on the inside. She is unemployed and receives a monthly allowance of 200 yuan. She goes around the city collecting plastic bottles from the garbage, newspapers, etc. which she then sells. In spite of all that, she comes to the hospital every week, and each time she brings fruit or something to eat for her husband and for the others... One day, she arrived empty-handed, and her husband asked her why. She answered that everything was becoming too expensive... In the end, the rushes of this scene weren’t used because the film would have become too long. Which other characters did you select after these first days? I think of one young boy, Li Wei, who loves to sing. He worked without ear protection for a tractor factory in Zhejiang (a province south of Shanghai). His mental state was already fragile before that, but these conditions only made things worse. Six months after being hired, he started to complain about brain problems: he frequently suffered headaches and dizziness, saw flashes of light, and had hallucinations... Because of these crises he was institutionalized.
Among those that I had not planned to film in the beginning and that eventually found their place in the economy of the story, we have Yin Tianxin, a patient who had been handcuffed. Yin Tianxin suffered a lot. He was a miserable man, a little stubborn, who got beaten by the other patients. The doctors administered him a variety of drugs and a lot of injections. We see a couple of the drugs’ effects in the film, but we can’t tell how they will work in the long run. There was another young man, eighteen years old, his hand tied to the bars, crying like an animal... He made a big impression on me. The two of us talked a lot. He told me the difficult life of his family, his parents’ poverty... He had to go to work far away from home, in an unknown and scary place. He couldn’t bear it, and he didn’t earn enough to look after his family’s needs anyway. He had a crisis. He told me he complained a lot, argued with his mother, didn’t eat much... Despite all these problems, he seemed to me as a very intelligent and courageous boy. In the end, he didn’t make it into the film. Why? We had already filmed a patient who was bound to his bed... Another interesting character was Chen Zhuanyan, a farmer of forty or fifty years old. We witnessed his arrival at the hospital. First he was terrified, but he got used to the place after a couple of days. Via him, I wanted to emphasize the large gap that exists between the inside and the outside. Among these characters, there was also Wu Shensong, to whom they give an injection, and who prays on his bed. He was the youngest and, with his feminine features, the most beautiful of the patients... All the others looked at him as if he were a beautiful young woman. He got kissed and touched by them and became their sex slave, their toy. He was especially close to an older gentleman he shared a room with and who was very attentive to him. There was some sort of father-son relationship between them. This relation is one of the film’s leitmotivs, as indeed, more in general, is the affection between the patients. I filmed two men who slept together every night, naked, side by side. The images are not in the final edit because bodily contact was already sufficiently highlighted through other characters.
What kind of team did you shoot the film with? How many were you? We were five. Two on the inside, the cameraman and me: we filmed with only one camera, with a built-in microphone. Three on the outside: the producer, an assistant, and a fifth person in charge of logistics. These last three weren’t really informed on the film’s daily progress. We didn’t have the time to tell them about our days. It was a dense and exhausting shoot: when not filming, we slept. How were your days organized?
Didn’t you film the procedures? Your negotiations to be able to enter, for example? No. It was tiring enough already to film all the rest, which was a lot more important. At the end of every day, I was so exhausted I couldn’t even look at the camera anymore... I was more free when I filmed West of the Tracks than in this hospital. In addition, the story of West of the Tracks was more complete ; there were different narrative levels... Here, we could only enter if they gave us permission. Our coming and going was monitored. The hospital lives in a separate world. That necessarily requires a different kind of narrative.
'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013)
The days are short in winter: we got up at seven, filmed until noon, took a break, and then filmed again after lunch, until midnight. We filmed as long as possible without interruption, so as not to disturb the nurses and the patients. In the evening, when we left, everyone was already in bed. The procedures were many and difficult.
The doctors had to come and open the doors for us every day. In the end, the older ones watching the doors didn’t even look at us anymore. They didn’t really behave very well towards us. We didn’t pay too much attention to it. As long as they let us enter, we kept on filming.
When it comes to the camera, how did you decide on the frame? Did you choose to follow one character? One action? I hardly thought about the frame. I followed characters or feelings. Day after day, I kept on filming patients without any idea of when to stop. It was nerve-wracking. Most filmmakers wonder if they need to film for ten of twenty days... My situation was different: the film I was shooting was endless. I didn’t exactly know which material I needed, if I had to, in absolute terms, film for three or six months, or even more... I asked myself these kinds of questions all the time, even if, on the other hand, I knew very well that the hospital had given us permission to stay for only three months.
health reasons, I couldn’t follow the ones that lived at high altitude... In one of the families we filmed, the wife was twenty-five years old and had three very restless kids. The oldest was six. Her husband was in the hospital. Imagine a girl of twenty-five that lives like that in Paris. You can’t live like that. The rushes have been edited out because the story too strongly resembled the story of Three Sisters. And the film was, once again, too long. Did you send one of your team members to go film at altitude? Yes, but we didn’t use the images. Filming too many characters out of the hospital would have disturbed the structure of the story.
Was that the first time you were in that kind of doubt?
Why did you choose to follow Zhu Xiaoyan, specifically?
I had already experienced it at the time of West of the Tracks, but not to this extent: when we were forced to stop filming in a factory, we could always go and film in another one. For 'Til Madness, the place was a lot more confined, we didn’t have that kind of alternative. After a while, we took stock and we noticed we had already filmed about a hundred tapes. I felt relieved. I took the tapes to the province of Sichuan to start thinking about the editing. There, a new problem arose: how to structure the narrative? How to succeed in advancing the plot in a clear way, while telling different things at the same time? I couldn’t count on others, couldn’t explain things in detail... It was important: I was the only one that could think about these style issues.
One character was enough. His story was simple. We didn’t need a lot of time to tell it.
Once everything about the story of the characters was clear in my head, a new kind of stress was added to the previous ones: I understood that we hadn’t filmed enough. So we returned to the hospital. What we filmed then is close to the end result. It was around New Year’s Eve. We knew that certain patients were getting ready to go home to their families ; but, of course, we had no way of anticipating what would happen next. We followed three or four patients to their homes. The choice was easy: for
At the end of the sequence that shows him with his family, we see Zhu Xiaoyan walk alone, for a long time, at night, on a motorway. What does this shot mean for you? Nothing special. This shot just shows that Zhu Xiaoyan doesn’t want to sleep at home. He prefers to stay outside. Many filmmakers willingly use metaphors to give form and meaning to their characters. I don’t think that way. I am happy to show their acts, their life... Without necessarily talking about metaphors, this shot echoes the shots earlier in the film that show certain patients running around the corridors, like animals in a cage. We can indeed have the impression that nothing has changed, that Zhu Xiaoyan has taken the whole hospital outside with him. I admit I hadn’t thought of that when I edited it. When I create my films, I only worry about realism. It is not up to me to explain them ; it’s up to other filmmakers, up to critics.
There is another remarkable thing in 'Til Madness Do Us Part: the names of the patients the film focuses on are written on the screen. That is fundamental information. We couldn’t give too much information on the characters to the spectator. The minimum is to give their names and indicate how long they have been institutionalized. Why did you wish to show the patients’ names a couple of minutes after they appeared and not right away? It often happens that there are more characters in one shot. It wasn’t possible to present all of them at the same time... If they also talk, as is often the case, the presence of the subtitles would have made it more difficult to write the name. That is the only reason we made that choice. We preferred to name the characters in a quiet moment. Otherwise the spectator wouldn’t have paid attention to it. Indicating the name of the characters is not a cinematographic approach. It is something which came to me very naturally.
We could say that naming the patients is the goal of 'Til Madness Do Us Part, its result, as if you wanted to tear them out of the anonymity of madness, in order to give them an identity, as if it were necessary that this identity wasn’t given immediately, but only once the spectator had been able to see how different from one another these characters are, different also from the idea we normally have about mental illness. Maybe… The patients shown in 'Til Madness are common people, ordinary people that will not leave a trace in history. Their name only means something for their families. It will disappear after their death. I have named them because I thought the film was an interesting place for them to exist. Have you become friends with certain patients or certain employees of the hospital? I have become friends with many of them. They told me repeatedly that some of them were waiting for us to come in the morning. Others asked us to bring cigarettes or tea leaves. I tried to do it, it was only natural. I have not yet had the chance to go back to the hospital, but I definitely will.
Originally published in Emmanuel Burdeau and Eugenio Renzi, Alors, la Chine (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2014). Translated by Sis Matthé
Bitter Money (2016)
“A certain freedom in life” In Conversation with Michael Guarneri and Jin Wang
During the celebrations for Chinese New Year 2017, we took advantage of a short break in Wang Bing’s busy shooting-and-editing schedule, and contacted him over Skype to discuss his latest releases. With the crackling of fireworks in the background, and while the director chain-smoked and enjoyed some noodles, we talked about his documentaries Ta’ang and Bitter Money, both of which premiered in European film festivals in 2016 (the former at Berlinale Forum in February, the latter at Venezia Orizzonti in September). Ta’ang follows various Myanmarese families of Ta’ang ethnicity as they are forced to leave their native villages in the Kokang region and flee to China because of the war between Tatmadaw (the
armed forces of Myanmar) and local ‘rebel’ guerrillas. Bitter Money follows a group of young people from the Yunnan region migrating eastward to Huzhou, ‘the city of silk’, determined to make as much money as possible by working long hours in sewing workshops. Ultimately, the Myanmarese on the run and the fortune-seeking Yunnan youth face the same destiny: broken family ties, loneliness, anxiety, and exploitation in the workplace. “We are frail, we work hard and we live day by day,” Wang Bing concluded in our interview, as the production history of Ta’ang and Bitter Money occasioned some matter-of-fact reflections on the struggle to conquer a certain freedom from want that involves most people on Earth, including the filmmaker.
Michael Guarneri and Jin Wang: How are you? Wang Bing: I am fine, thank you. I have been so busy lately! My schedule has been very hectic for the past two years, so I am having a good rest now, recharging my batteries before starting to work again. What’s your next move? Traveling, shooting, editing, more traveling, more shooting, more editing. Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky said it well in a 1922 manifesto: he wrote that “cinema is an athlete,” and that the man with the camera must have a lot of energy, because filmmaking is an exhausting enterprise. Yes, filmmaking can be exhausting. Indeed, I made a rule for myself to only follow one project at a time – I cannot take more. Shooting, postproduction, festivals: the work never ends. I am willing to do anything for my movies, but unfortunately I am not much of an ‘athlete’. Do you remember that scene from my film 'Til Madness Do Us Part, in which a young patient
of the mental hospital starts running down the corridor and the cameraman runs after him? Well, that patient was really nervous and could never sleep, so he used to take a lot of exercise to wear himself down. I shot 'Til Madness Do Us Part with two cameras – one operated by me and one operated by another cameraman. We tried a fixed-camera setup for the running scene, but I felt that the fixed camera couldn’t quite create a connection between the audience and the inner world of this person. I felt that only by running with him we could express his anxiety and restlessness. So I told the other cameraman, who is younger and more energetic than me, to run after the patient... (Laughter) Given the reliance on money investments in production and profit-making through distribution, cinema is not only an athletic feat, but also a business. Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? In my view, the film industry is very simple: there are commercial movies and there are personal movies, both based on material foundations. Commercial movies are the driving economic force of the film industry. They require a lot of money to be made and
involve a lot of people. Consequently, commercial movies need to follow certain rules other than the director’s will. However, in the film industry there is also a space for individualism, that is to say the possibility for making personal movies like the ones I make. These personal movies require less investment and involve less people than commercial ones. I am not saying that one type of movies is better than the other. I am saying that every movie has its value, regardless of the budget. Over the course of the past 17 years, I have found my place in the film industry. I want to make personal movies, so I work with low budgets. I think that if I make a ‘big investment’ movie, I will have less freedom: I will be tied down by the money and by other conditions. For example, if I made a commercial movie I would have to work with a huge crew, and I don’t think that I am prepared for that. I would probably end up spending too much time managing the crew and not enough time on the shooting itself. Digital technology provides a good platform for a person to make his own movie with a minimal crew, and that suits me fine. It is the way I want to work. I totally accept and embrace my status. I don’t feel it is ‘poor filmmaking’, in spite of the low budget. I think personal movies deserve their place into the film industry beside the commercial ones. Your friend and colleague Lav Diaz has described at length how he managed to find some freedom within the limits of low-budget, digital filmmaking. How free do you feel as a filmmaker? 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.
You mentioned Lav Diaz. Lav set most of his movies in the ancient forests of the Philippines. His characters live there – his stories take place there. The forest is a natural setting: it is beautiful in itself as a scenery, it is beautifully photographed by Lav, and it also costs very little money to shoot there. So by deciding to shoot in the forest, Lav has found a way to solve narrative, aesthetics, and budget problems, all in one. He made a great use of the means at his disposal – that’s what a good director does, in my view. And that’s what I am trying to do as well. Most of my movies are documentaries. I like documentaries because they allow me to get into contact with the real life of the people. Also, the documentary form is the most viable way for me to make movies in China. By following people’s everyday life, I don’t have to look for actors and direct them, I don’t have to ask a lot of people to work together for me, and I don’t have to ask permission to anybody. The ways in which the Chinese film industry limits filmmakers become invalid for me, if I shoot inexpensive movies about the real life of the people with a small crew. That’s why I keep on making documentaries: I like genuine stories, and I like to feel free. Could we talk a bit about your cinema from the production side, focusing on your latest two documentaries Ta’ang and Bitter Money? It would be interesting to hear about the practicalities of your work. How much money did you need for Ta’ang and Bitter Money? For Ta’ang I needed a few thousand euros to start shooting, because the movie is set in a faraway region, at the southern border of China. The cost of the movie is basically the cost of the journey, plus some extra expenses during the shooting, which lasted about one month in total. Bitter Money cost much more than Ta’ang, mainly because the shooting went on for more than two years, between Yunnan province and the city of Huzhou. As for my crew, it is very light. The maximum number is six or seven people, but this almost never happens. It is normally three of us, and sometimes it is only me. That’s all my budget allows. (Laughter)
What is your equipment? For Ta’ang and Bitter Money I used a very small photo camera (a digital camera that primarily takes photos) that has the video recording option. The brand is Sony, the models are Alpha7s and Alpha7s II. I like them because they have a 35 mm full-frame sensor. For these models, I have found matching Leica and Zeiss photographic lenses that allow for autofocus. Autofocus is essential for me, because my crew is so small and the conditions in which I work so ever-changing and unpredictable that I need the machine to take care of the focus by itself. Basically, I chose a small photo camera – the one that granted more flexibility during the shooting and that was easier to control. On it, I mounted very good photographic lenses whose production, unfortunately, ceased some time ago. I think the lenses I currently use are from the late 1970s or early ’80s. They are almost 40 years old. I was lucky to find someone selling them for a very very cheap price, as if they were rubbish to get rid of. I spent infinitely less than buying new ones, and they are better than today’s movie lenses, in my opinion. If I had to give an advice to young people who want to make low-budget, personal films, I would say first of all make sure you pick the right equipment. New equipment is expensive and not necessarily better than older technology. Don’t dismiss something just because it is from another decade. If possible, familiarize yourself with the various options, and spend time at the ‘flea market’ to find good equipment at low cost. Actually, I am very happy and proud of the equipment choices I made for Ta’ang. I think that the people that you see in Ta’ang are very beautiful. If instead of the old photographic lenses I had used the new movie lenses, which I consider very roughly made, I couldn’t have achieved such beautiful images of such beautiful people. This is only an example, taken from my personal experience. The point is that a filmmaker has to find smart ways to break through the limitations of the budget and get the right tools to do what he wants to do. This is the first step, I would say.
Once I have the right equipment, I can focus on the relationship with the people to be filmed, on understanding of the value of their existence, on the close observation of their everyday life. Documentary for me is not that you just go to some place and film anything you see. The shooting is the last part of the production, it comes after a lot of observation and thinking. For many years I have been working under the limitations of the budget, trying to find a way to shoot freely and control the production of the whole movie as much as possible. Starting from my very first film West of the Tracks, I became interested in all different aspects of movie production: the budget, the equipment, the crew, the relationship with the people to be filmed... I subsequently found my personal style struggling against limitations and working around problems. What about postproduction? Is it more expensive than shooting? It depends case by case. Postproduction didn’t cost much for Ta’ang because the shooting only lasted one month, due to budget restrictions and other things. We didn’t have much material to process. However, for Bitter Money I shot more than 2,000 hours. The film Bitter Money is only a tiny fraction of the whole shooting, about 200 hours. A seven- or eight-month work on post-production awaits me to process the whole footage. I plan to make other movies out these 2,000-plus hours in the future. I want to tell other stories, go more in depth, add more information. We understand that you are a very concrete person and you don’t like theory very much, but there is another intellectual active in Soviet Russia that we would like to mention here, in relation to your filmmaking practice. It is Dziga Vertov, according to whom cinema must not strive to be Art, but it must try hard to provide information. What is your opinion about that? Everyone has their own view about cinema, about its nature and function. Our perception of cinema depends on personal sensibility, and it varies a lot according to cultural differences. In my opinion, cinema is very different from painting and sculpture.
Cinema is more like language, for me. You can use language to do all sorts of things. You can use it to write poems or you can use it to write an official document, a report. Film is just a tool, a platform that takes you wherever you want to go. There are no fixed rules or policies about what you should or should not do with cinema. So I always try to keep an open mind: for me, the film image is a recording of the reality of human existence in a given historical, socio-economic and political context, but at the same time it contains emotions, beauty, something more abstract that is perhaps Art. Why limit cinema to only one thing? Talking about being open to all possibilities, there is this scene in Bitter Money where a young woman named Ling Ling turns to you, looks into the camera and says: “Come on, let’s go to my sister’s. Follow me!” Usually it is the director who tells people what to do, but in your film you are the one who is told what to do... I am glad that I had this chance to interact with Ling Ling. When I first met her and got to know her, I realized that there is a big anxiety in her life: she doesn’t want to work in the sewing workshops, but sewing is the only trade she knows. As shown in the film, she also has problems with her husband. However, there are no real issues between Ling Ling and her husband, there are no major sentimental problems. It is just this anxiety that exists in the air between them and poisons their life. In general, as a director, I want to just disappear and simply record what’s happening in front of me. Yet, as I often am the cameraman as well, the interaction with the person I am filming gives me the opportunity to really get into people’s life and capture the truth of their existence. It’s rare to have chances like this, but it suddenly and unexpectedly happened with Ling Ling. I am so glad. Are you also a character in your films? Sometimes we see your shadow on the wall or on the ground, we hear you breathing on the soundtrack... I don’t care much about my presence within my movies. As a documentary cameraman, there will always be the chance, or risk, for my shadow to appear in the frame, because I cannot control the light.
I cannot really help when this happens, so I don’t mind much. In the end, it is only natural: because of the way I work, sometimes you see me, sometimes you hear me coughing... Personally, I don’t want to be in the forefront. I am a quiet person, I don’t like to show off, both in real life and during the shooting. So I try to be as discreet a presence as possible, stay with the people quietly, and pay attention to what happens in front of me. Your film Ta’ang opens with a scene in which the war refugees’ shelter collapses. The Ta’ang people left their home in Myanmar and now their temporary house at the Chinese border falls down. It is a very concise, powerful opening for your film. How did you get into contact with these refugees in the first place? The refugees belong to the Ta’ang ethnic group and to other ethnicities. They speak their own language, which I cannot understand. However, since they come from an area at the border between many states, they can speak different languages. The fluency depends case by case, but most people know a little bit of Chinese. So when I visited the southern border (between China and Myanmar) for the first time, I met several Ta’ang women and their children. I immediately had the feeling that they were very pure, very simple human beings. I like this kind of people, I find them very interesting. So I decided to follow them and I started shooting. Since at the southern border there is a war and everybody is anxious and panicked, I thought that the audience could be engaged by the quiet observation of this chaotic situation. My aim was not to make a film about the bigger picture, the armed conflict and its political causes, but to record the stories of the displaced mothers and children wandering around, lost. I thought that these stories that I found so interesting could also be attractive to audiences who have never been there, who have never experienced this kind of situation. I shot the daily life of the Ta’ang people at the border for a short period, then I had to leave. I came back a second time because I wanted to shoot more material, but the women and children I knew were gone, the contact was lost. So I went to another place and met another group of refugees, whom I followed for another short period.
As always, for Ta’ang my hope and my work was to find the feelings from the people themselves, and translate their personalities, their experience, their lives into the movie. “We must stay together, we must not separate” is a phrase that we hear several times in Ta’ang. We noticed that the topic of broken families recurs in all your films... Broken families are one of the many issues that people have to face over the course of their existence. In Ta’ang the cause of all troubles is war: refugees are constantly hiding, running around from one place to another. They are lost, they are scared. This precarious situation makes a person become vulnerable, anxious. In Bitter Money it is the struggle to make a living that triggers people’s anxiety: the workers have to leave their village and their families behind, move to another region, slave away in the city in order to make money. I want to observe people’s life, to access their inner world and show what worries them. Everybody lives in worry. If you don’t interact with other people, you will never understand their inner world and the issues they have to face every single day of their life. But when you do interact, as a filmmaker or as a spectator, then you are forced to face other people’s anxieties and unstable status, and your own anxieties and unstable status, too. We all try to find something of ourselves in the life of other people. To get the money to pay for transport, food, and other basic needs, the Ta’ang refugees – both adults and children – work in sugar cane plantations in exchange for a ridiculous salary. Do they get paid less than legal workers? They are paid less than legal workers, of course. It’s essential for the refugees to find a job in order to survive while they are so far away from home. The refugees are so desperate that they are willing to accept any job, any salary, any condition. This situation is not at all special, it is the same all over the world. Each person has his position in the economic chain. Nobody wants to be at the bottom. Each person thinks of his own benefit, taking advantage of other people. This is clearly shown in Ta’ang. However, Ta’ang also shows that when people are in trouble they stick together and help each other,
no matter which ethnic group or country they are from. The kindness of humanity still shows sometimes, together with the greedy side. At some point in the middle of the movie, night falls and it seems like it’s never going to end. Watching the film, it’s unnerving, it’s exhausting, it’s scary... One very practical reason for the long night scenes is related to some limitations we had to face during the shooting. In the daytime we didn’t have so much freedom to shoot, for a variety of disturbing reasons. So we shot a lot of material at nighttime, when the situation around us was quieter. Also, at nighttime human beings tend to show and share more of their true feelings and ideas about their status and the world they live in. At nighttime people feel free to speak their mind about a lot of things. During the daytime, on the contrary, they are busy with daily life and work, and it is really hard to get to know a person, because of this façade that we all have to maintain to go through the motions of our daily routine. Therefore, when I was editing Ta’ang, I decided to include more than 50 minutes of material from the nighttime footage, to engage audiences with the inner world of the refugees, to provide a more complete account of their life. During this eternal night a group of women and a few men gather around the fire and start talking about their refugee life, their misery, their families broken by the war, wondering about the future. Being together and talking with each other helps them a little, gives them a chance to get things off their chest. Is your camera like a fire into the night, which people can use to gather around and discuss their problems? I think that you are reading too much into the movie. There are no metaphors for me. Things are far simpler. The Ta’ang people come from a rural area in which it is very common to gather around the fire and talk. In their native region, nights are not so cold, the weather is a lot warmer than in Northern China. Ta’ang people’s life is very different from our city life: at night, they usually gather around the fire and talk for hours. The night scenes in my movie show this
habit they have and how they cling to it. I guess it is an attempt by the refugees to live normally, as if they were in their beloved village back home. Ta’ang takes us from Myanmar to China’s Southern region Yunnan to follow the refugees, while Bitter Money takes us from the Yunnan countryside to the city of Huzhou to follow young peasants dreaming of becoming rich quickly by working in sewing workshops. In the China of today everybody dreams of becoming rich, while originally the dream was to create a society in which everybody was equal... Historically, Chinese society comes from feudalism. We had feudalism for thousands of years. And then, suddenly, China changed into a modern society. At the beginning it was all about ideology, communist ideology. It is a long story. The People’s Republic of China was born as a socialist system: we had a planned economy, in which certain goods were produced in certain quantities, and wealth was subsequently distributed to the people. Under these circumstances, the Chinese market was limited. An individual’s productive behavior was limited and everybody got more or less the same amount of wealth. Accordingly, people had very limited possibilities for leaving their native place and moving elsewhere to improve their condition. In sum, individuals had a very limited control over their life. The 1978 ‘open door’ policy brought about the market economy and now the individual has more initiative, more freedom of movement, and the rule is that those who work more get more wealth. Of course, things are never so straightforward. The accumulation of wealth doesn’t depend only on how much you work, but also on power and class. But in general, in the market economy, normal people – the vast majority of people – can only gain wealth by the work of their hands, and the amount of wealth they can get is directly proportional to the amount of time they spend working. So in the city of Huzhou (where Bitter Money is set) as everywhere else in China, people seek to make more money working up to 13 hours per day. This is what the people who come from the bottom of society do. It is what they have to do to face the hardships of life.
One of the ways to get rich quickly that is used by the workers in Bitter Money is a sort of pyramid scheme scam: workers basically trick their fellow workers into investing in a non-existent business run by some shady company, in order to appropriate part of the investment money. It is a struggle between the poor... In the economic chain, from the top to the bottom, everybody wants to have money in order to conquer a certain freedom from need. No matter how slim the chance of making money is, people will try everything they can to make profit and acquire a certain ‘freedom in life’. However, people coming from the bottom of society have very small chances, very few options. It is not easy for them to live in this world. Most of the time, in addition to working their asses off every day, they have to find other sources of income. So what can they do? We shouldn’t judge the people in Bitter Money too harshly for the pyramid scheme scam. Our life is very different from theirs. If we were in their shoes, if we had to face the hardships that they have to face, we would probably do the pyramid scheme scam as well. Bitter Money shows us the capitalist trap at work. People accept to be exploited to get as much money as possible, but then somehow money just vanishes from their pockets, because they have to pay for the rent, the food, the drinks, the cell phone, the gambling... The older man that we see drunk in the sewing workshop is a mirror held up to your young protagonists – his hopes ground up in this big machine of exploitation. Do you think that the young people realize this? Do you think that they learn something from him? The young people that you see in Bitter Money will soon become like the older person. This is certain. Age aside, the life of all the workers in my film is more or less the same: they work in the factory, they eat in the factory, they sleep in the factory. They have no life in the outside world. They all work endlessly, they save every penny made from sewing clothes. The only difference is that the young people have less of a burden to cope with: they are in good health, they are still strong and energetic, they haven’t married, they have no children, their parents are still relatively young and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. These young people don’t have too much
pressure from life yet. If they had as much pressure as the older guy that you see in Bitter Money, they would start breaking in the same way. The older guy has been slaving away for such a long time and his life is still the same. His condition didn’t improve at all. Therefore, he is disappointed with himself, he becomes bitter, he gets drunk. He has a family to provide for: a wife, a child. Plus, his parents are old and ill, and they need money, too. The pressure is too much for him to handle. In comparison, young people have less pressure and, after spending for board and lodging, they have something left for themselves. So even if they all belong to the same social class, the young people think that they are better than the older guy and laugh at him. In my view, the fact that the young people laugh at their older fellow worker means that they haven’t seen life clearly. They haven’t seen their future clearly. They haven’t learned anything yet. This is the delusion of young age, it is very common. I experienced the same delusion myself. When I was younger, I lived passionately. I was very passionate and idealistic about each and every movie I made. I still am in a way, but after almost 20 years in the film industry I finally realized that it is impossible for me to break through certain limitations, certain invisible barriers. Of course, people would think that these limitations come from the lack of money. They do, but actually it is not just about money. It is the way the whole industry works that creates limitations. The mainstream ideology of our society creates limitations. The fierce competition between people creates limitations. I knew about these issues from the start, ever since the beginning of my career, but I didn’t care much. I thought that many issues will soon be solved somehow. I thought that I could solve all my problems simply by working hard. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and I am now facing the same challenges that I was facing when I made my first film. Nothing has changed for me, nothing has improved in all these years. It is I who have changed over time. I changed from a person who has hopes and passion about the film industry, a person believing in the creative power of imagination, to a disillusioned person who knows that the reality of the film industry will never ever change.
So I have come to accept the fact that I have to live within this immutable system. Now I feel released. At the beginning of my career, I thought that there were a lot of possibilities in filmmaking. I was naive, I was dreaming. As time went by, the possibilities vanished one by one. When you cannot achieve your dream, what can you do? You learn to live in the real world. That’s why I totally accept and embrace my status. Now I simply try to reach my dream within the concrete possibilities that I have. That’s the only thing I can do. An individual is too small and weak to change the whole society. The people in my movies and I, we are all the same in a way: we are frail, we work hard and we live day by day. In Ta’ang people always talk about money and money is always shown. In Bitter Money people always talk about money but money is never shown. I am not sure this fact you highlight was intentional on my part. But I would like to talk about the title ‘Bitter Money’ for a minute. The title is very important and it was chosen carefully. In Huzhou ‘bitter money’ is a slang expression that workers use to say “I am going away from home to work.” It is a very common way of saying in this city, everyone uses it. Coming from Northern China, I had never heard of this expression before, and I was curious about it. So over the course of the shooting, I understood why they call work bitter money: all these workers have migrated to Huzhou from other regions, with the hope of making money. The word ‘bitter’ alludes to the discriminations that the individual has to face when he is away from his native place, the hardships and sadness a person has to face when he is away from home to earn money, working like hell all day, every day, with no personal life whatsoever. You can see the money or you cannot see it, but it is the ‘bitter’ taste of money I am interested in.
Originally published on www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-wang-bing (February 2017)
Vertical Cinema, Horizontal Cinema Emmanuel Burdeau
Although it is still young – it’s only fifteen years since West of the Tracks – Wang Bing’s work has already monumental status. It already has its own internal geography, its own secret production techniques. Over the last half dozen years this Chinese director has got into the habit of alternating between long-term projects and much shorter ones. Wang Bing never stops filming. There’s nothing he likes more than being surrounded by people, than gaining their acceptance in order to film what no one else, in China or anywhere, ever shows. He likes to be led by chance encounters, finding in these people he meets the idea and need for a film that will be faster, and not necessarily easier, than the one he was working on at the time. Hence his film Ta’ang, which was released in fall 2016 and followed groups of refugees, especially women, between their camps and the mountains. Hence, too, Fang Xiu Ying (Mrs. Fang). Wang Bing met her when he was shooting in a village in Southern China. Mrs. Fang is 67 years old. She appears in the first shots, regal in her printed jacket, as if looking the camera up and down. She takes a few steps, mutters two or three words. A few seconds later, here is Mrs. Fang in bed, so thin that we hardly recognize her. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Her days are numbered. The principle of the film is minimal: it sets out to follow the agony of Mrs. Fang on the bed where she has stopped moving, while members of her family come and go around her. They are busy with their occupations, listening to the radio, competing over taking care of her and debating how much
longer she has – “It can go very quickly, but it can also last...” The only relief comes from a few scenes of men outside chatting and of nocturnal fishing – although a shot showing a fish dying on a sidewalk brings us back to the bedroom, with an almost heightened cruelty. It turns out we have seen Mrs. Fang on her feet for only a few moments. All the rest of the time she is in her bed, and the signs of life that she gives grow fainter and fainter. This is another of the oppositions that organize Wang Bing’s work: upright, lying down. Man entered the history of cinema as a walking figure. At the turn of this century, Wang Bing tirelessly followed the workers – soon to be unemployed, or already so – in the corridors, gangways and rooms of the industrial complex in Tiexi. Without the lightness of the digital, without the endurance of this former art student, there would be no West of the Tracks. Later, but in the same way, Wang Bing walked in the footsteps of the ‘man with no name’.
Ultimate fragments of the possible On the other hand, he has filmed reclining people in a way that is just as tireless and perhaps even more singular. They are the prisoners in the camp of The Ditch. They are the patients of 'Til Madness Do Us Part. It is the idle boy in Father and Sons, also shown at Documenta and not released in France. These are lives revolving around a layer of misfortune where
people eat, write, pray, suffer and invite one or several friends under the duvet. And now, Mrs. Fang, sometimes filmed so close up that her jaw seems to be touching the lens and its muted groans to be buttonholing us ; sometimes, on the contrary, seen from the other end of the room, a slender silhouette disappearing silently under the blanket, while those around her busy themselves noisily. 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. Put back in the context of Documenta 14, the presentation of Mrs. Fang and the division between kinds of recumbence and kinds of sleeping takes on another meaning. Before the screening, Wang Bing apologized for the poor technical quality of what the audience was about to see, which in his view was inferior to what the art world is used to. The film was shown at the Kino Gloria, but it is not sure that Wang Bing wants Mrs. Fang to be shown theatrically. Not sure that in his eyes it is actually a film, in the strict sense.
Art at the bedside of cinema? Might the border between cinema and art be coterminous with that between walking and recumbence? It is tempting to think so. A year ago another chamber movie was released about a supine figure that some claimed would have been better off in a gallery. This was La mort de Louis XIV 1 and its director, the Catalan Albert Serra, was also honoured by Documenta, the last one, where he showed Three Little Pigs, based on the words of three historic Germans: Johan Wolfgang Goethe, Adolf Hitler and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The difference between Mrs. Fang and Louis XIV are obvious: where one is surrounded by pomp, the other is mired in poverty (Mrs. Fang’s family can’t afford the treatment and so prefers to splurge its savings on a funeral blow-out), and the melting solicitousness of the king’s flunkeys are worlds away from the brusqueness of the Fangs, just as the whispering of courtiers clashes with the shouting of the Chinese. And yet the set-up is the same. It evokes an assembly of spectators gathered around a work, a painting, going deep into compliments and interpretations. The score is not new. At the cinema, it is the images that move, not the spectators. In a museum or gallery, the opposite is the case: the images do not move, but the spectators and the visitors do. Despite the gulf between them, should not these pieces by Wang Bing and Albert Serra both be read as allegories, that of art hovering, like a vulture or a disciple, at cinema’s bedside table? That’s a question for the long grass, but meanwhile I would stress another resemblance. Serra is interested in the great mythological figures of Western history, both literary and historical: Don Quixote, the Wise Men, Dracula, Casanova, Louis XIV. With Wang Bing it’s the opposite: he does not film ‘great names’ but the ‘nameless’, those ignored by the radar of History. And yet both bodies of work inhabit a shared time, eked out from beyond or within exhaustion: the exhaustion of myths, of productive forces, of the division between work and worklessness. And it is therefore not absurd to argue that their respective approaches – their refusal to walk, their way of making their bed – could also escape the habitual cartographies of art and cinema.
See artpress 433 (May 2016).
Originally published as ‘Wang Bing à Cassel’ in artpress 447 (September 2017). Translation by C. Penwarden.
Inner and Outer Space
Mrs. Fang (2017)
In Conversation with Daniel Kasman and Christopher Small
An old face – skin drawn tautly over jaw and cheekbone, thinning grey hair, eyeballs quivering like tadpoles – is the central image in Wang Bing’s Golden Leopard winner Mrs. Fang. The naked, sober image of this face, which belongs to Fang Xiuying, the film’s bedridden 68-year-old protagonist, is studied at length and in close-up ; the camera’s prominence imbues Fang’s pallid features with a kind of unclouded solemnity. The abstract concepts of death and illness are summoned to reality here, glimpsed in the twitch of an eyelid or in the grimace on Fang’s petrified lips. Before the full subject of the film – the bare intimacy of approaching the death of another human – is revealed, we see the grandmother in a few brief glimpses around her home in her village of Maihui, in China’s Zhejiang province. Wang shoots her standing in a floral coat, as if for a portrait, in her home and outside, by one of the multitude of waterways that pass through her village. She seems reserved but in good health, yet after a single fade to black, one year has passed and the old woman has been confined to her bed by advanced Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in partial paralysis. Wang, whose perennial theme is the mystery of human surfaces and their relationship to the cruel whims of the world, pushes these shots of the dying woman’s face beyond any traditional length. Through extended sequence shots we peer at this ossified, inexpressive mask wondering what pain or numbness dwells beneath, with only her swivelling eyes hinting at interiority. The emphasis is so great and the intimacy so cutting that this face becomes an overriding metaphor for the situation Mrs. Fang as a whole depicts in all its obscurity and complexity. Taking place almost entirely over the course of the last seven days of Fang Xiuying’s life, Mrs. Fang is as sober a depiction of the variously moving and bizarre rituals of observance and comment that spring up around the death of a person as Frederick Wiseman’s epic Near Death (1989). While Wiseman’s masterpiece is the closest precedent in documentary cinema to Mrs. Fang, it is ultimately more about the intellectual, emotional struggle of doctors and nurses to comfort the anguished friends and relatives of people on the verge of death. No doctors are seen in Wang’s film, no expert treats the woman ; in fact, there are no officials of any kind in the film. Death thereby becomes solely a personal matter: Fang is not a patient but a victim.
In one-fifth the length of Wiseman’s film, Mrs. Fang runs the gamut of the reactions of grieving neighbours and relatives ; it is a kind of materialist theatre of mourning, alternating between studying Mrs. Fang directly as she stiffly shifts around in bed with the help of her family and then stepping back to observe the behaviour of those who come to pay their respects or to experience the spectacle of a paralyzed woman firsthand. When not peering at the woman in close-up, the camera is often showing the bedside from one side or the other at a distance, rendering it and its observers as a fresco, death’s audience variously crying, tending, distracted, leering, complaining, and impassive. In one scene, the visitors point down at Mrs. Fang lying in bed and talk about her as if she were already dead, pondering about the vagaries of her supposedly deteriorating mental state out loud. In the next, they stand silently in a semicircle around her bed, locked in unshakeable grief for the dying matriarch. Wang, as ever, can only hint at the interior lives of his subjects by studying their surfaces: Mrs. Fang’s face, first and foremost of course, but also the obscured faces of those who come to visit her. This community is alluded to in scenes that take a step outside the room where Mrs. Fang convalesces. Only the spare edges of Maihui are sketched in the film, as the town’s buildings are espied on each end of Mrs. Fang’s ground-floor flat, which runs the length of the building, entrances (or exits) on each side. The spatial arrangement of the flat and the realization that it is, in effect, a passageway, is in the scope of this modest and constrained film a quiet revelation, a combination of the sudden connecting of several already-seen spaces into a continuous geography and the bare allegorical connotations of the dying woman lying between two gateways to another world. The outside world is shown in a surprisingly limited way by Wang, who restricts his camera to following several men – Mrs. Fang’s relatives and neighbours – on nocturnal fishing excursions to murky waters surrounding the village. This group of men (the women are almost exclusively shown at Mrs. Fang’s bedside), whom we watch in several lengthy sequences, rely on flashlights and an electrified metal net to try and catch fish. The observation and work is curious in and of itself – it’s unclear if this activity is a necessity or recreation – but more curious still is that these scenes are the film’s only departure
Mrs. Fang (2017)
from Mrs. Fang’s deathbed, turning them into the strongest counterpoint to our intimate confrontation with a fading life. The forlorn loneliness of the fishing and its meagre effectiveness cast these moments of respite away from the claustrophobic house in poetic relief: a kind of soul searching, both in the needs of life (searching for food) and the needs of play (the activity has the aspect of a game). We can’t help but feel that the men’s search in the town’s watery outskirts is a search in some way to relieve Mrs. Fang: not to help her recover, but to help her pass without greater suffering. They step away, perhaps to escape the pervasive atmosphere of impending death, to fish for the family, but something in their search, shown in all its patient simplicity, achieves the metaphysical. Their activity is everyday ; it will even – of course – resume after Mrs. Fang dies. Is it too much of a stretch to compare these fishermen with Wang Bing, their electric rods to his camera, and their search for life something he, too, quests after every day?
We caught up with Wang Bing in Locarno, two days before Mrs. Fang won the Golden Leopard. Cinema Scope: How did you meet Mrs. Fang? Wang Bing: In 2015, by chance, I ran into her daughter, who later invited me to go and meet her. She wanted me to visit their home, spend some time together, and visit the village where they lived. At the time when I first met her, Mrs. Fang was in very good health, and somehow I had the idea then – talking things over with her daughter – to make a documentary about her. Just to start with some shooting. But at that point it was more or less just an idea. But then – this was about early 2016 – I didn’t find the time to do that. Time passed and I didn’t make the documentary I planned. Some time later, I received a phone call from the daughter to inform me that Mrs. Fang was sick. Again, it was by chance that I was in a small city nearby, and I decided to rush and visit them again. But when I arrived I found that Mrs. Fang was really very sick. Still, even at that time I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make a documentary about her and her illness. I decided anyway to shoot something. I didn’t have a clear idea of what it was that I was going to do
with the footage because you never know – maybe sometimes there is a story there, other times there isn’t. Anyway, I was there shooting until the very end. I thought that whatever I was going to do with this footage, I would decide afterwards.
Can you speak a little about the scenes with the fisherman using electrified fishing poles in the ponds and rivers nearby? I feel like they act as a counterpoint to the scenes concentrating on Mrs. Fang and make the film closer to a narrative feature, rather than simply a documentary.
How large was your crew when you started shooting? We were three people. I was there, together with the other two DPs. From the very start, the film is amazingly intimate. I was wondering how long it took to build that trust with the family. I actually knew the family for a long time. And it was they who called me to go there. Since we already knew each other, that allowed me to be there with them in that way. I know that the more time that passed and the sicker that Mrs. Fang got, the more under pressure the family were. Everybody was very nervous, since we all knew she was going to die. But they accepted that I was there. In no way did they interrupt or bother me while I was shooting. Just to follow up on what you said, it sounds like there are two aspects to that: one is that being close enough to the family, it’s okay for you, who is not a family member, to be there watching somebody who is that sick. But it’s another thing to be allowed to film that sickness. So I’m wondering what the family’s evolving relationship with the act of filming the sickness was. In these circumstances, there is obviously a lot of pressure. But again, I was invited there by the family. The attitude was that it was good for me to be there. I stayed there seven days, until the very end – that is, Mrs. Fang’s death. But around the fifth day, I felt that something was different. The pressure also came from the neighbourhood. Neighbours were going to visit Mrs. Fang all the time, and my filming there was making things uncomfortable. So I decided that for the fifth day there would be no filming. I started again the next day. I spent time talking to the family, and I knew that the son and daughter of Mrs. Fang accepted me being there. They wanted me to film this. But the neighbours were another story ; they didn’t feel comfortable.
All these scenes were shot at the same time as the main scenes in Mrs. Fang’s home. On the second day, Mrs. Fang’s brother said, suddenly, “Come fishing with us!” But yes, we were filming these at the same time as filming all the scenes with Mrs. Fang sick in her home. I accepted, thinking that it would be good to follow them. I did all the shooting at night – if you remember they were all night scenes – and then I came back to the house. Then it started to make sense. I realized that I needed to describe the village in which she was living because she lived there for so many years. I wanted to give a sense of the environment she was living in. Fishing was the main activity of the village, so that was important. And all the people she was living with for all those years – all of this was part of her life. I don’t mean that she was going fishing with the men every night, but of course she was surrounded by these kinds of activities. It is part of life in that village. I was curious about how you approach filming a sick subject, how you ensure that that person maintains their dignity, and that there’s never a sense of exploiting a real person’s pain to create an image of pain. I am a filmmaker. I make films. And I keep asking myself about cinema all the time and what it is about. What we are supposed to watch, what are we supposed to see in cinema? When I was there I was thinking a lot about the subject. Cinema needs these kinds of stories. Each of us has to face death sooner or later ; cinema might find its own way to describe death, to tell stories of death.
58 Mrs. Fang (2017)
Do you feel like it would only be okay to film a subject in this way if you personally knew the person, or would it be okay to do the same for anybody? Well, I can film unknown people too. For this subject? Yes, it would be okay. I would do it. I have seen so many films from so many countries about this subject: death. But most of them are fiction films so they use actors. In my work – and this is what I like to do – I don’t use actors. I meet people, and I tell the stories of these real people in their own reality. This is what I do. The subject interests me inasmuch as it is a subject that interests me in cinema. I was wondering what your specific interest in Mrs. Fang’s face was? Such a huge part of the film is spent looking directly at her face, as she lies paralyzed. Her eyes, teeth, gums, ears, skin, cheekbones – I just wanted to know what it was specifically about the face that was such a source of interest for you. It was the very first day that I was shooting. She was already very sick ; she was lying in bed. On that day, I shot for two hours and then I left. Then I spent the rest of that day watching this footage. Already I had been shooting very close up. And while going back and watching the footage again and again and again, I was obviously thinking about how generally I was going to shoot her – how I’ll do it and what exactly I’m going to show the audience what it is about Mrs. Fang that interests me. I saw that watching those close-ups from the first day that her eyes were very impressive, very touching.
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. If you remember, at the end of the film I also shot similar kinds of close-ups. When I was making those shots, I had a feeling that we were probably close to the end. She was going to die soon. I stayed there, looking for something. But in the very, very end, I decided not to be there, to step out. I felt that in taking those close-ups we were only a few hours away from her dying. After that last scene, I stepped back and saw the entire scene around her – I actually decided to stop filming when I saw her tears rolling down her cheek. All the other relatives and neighbours strongly believed that she had no thoughts anymore, that she could no longer think about living anymore. I was wondering what she was thinking at that time. And when I saw those tears coming down her cheeks I thought that maybe she was still there. Maybe she wasn’t able to communicate, but there was a tear. That was enough for me to understand that there was still someone there and that she wanted me there. The whole process then was in trying to understand – and find a way of expressing in cinema – what were this woman’s last thoughts.
Originally published in Cinema Scope 72 (Fall 2017).
Past in the Present Director’s Statement Wang Bing
Film Synopsis The name Jiabiangou (“Pincer Gulch”) refers to a stretch of Gobi Desert located approximately 30 kilometers northwest of Jiuquan (“Wine Springs”), a former garrison town in China’s Gansu Province. Jiabiangou began as a military-run farm on reclaimed desert wasteland, and later became a working farm and penal colony managed by the Jiuquan Bureau of Reform-Through-Labour. During the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign, Jiabiangou was repurposed as a camp for “ideological re-education through labour”: essentially a gulag for those accused of political crimes against the state, although it remained under the administrative authority of Jiuquan Township. Beginning in September 1957, over 3,000 individuals accused of political offenses (and labeled as “rightists” “ultra-rightists” “counterrevolutionaries” “bad elements” or “members of anti-Party cliques”) were transported to Jiabiangou from different parts of Gansu Province and forced to undergo a period of ideological re-education and hard labour.
Three years of backbreaking physical toil, mistreatment, malnutrition, starvation and death followed ; by the time Jiabiangou was disbanded in 1960, only 600 of the original 3,000 accused rightists had survived. The events at Jiabiangou were by no means unique. During the late 1950s, over half a million Chinese citizens were accused of “rightist” political tendencies or ideological transgressions ; many were imprisoned in gulags in Gansu and other Chinese provinces, and untold numbers died of starvation, mistreatment and overwork. Jiabiangou is one small but telling microcosm of the ruthless political persecution that occurred during the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Through footage and interviews with over 80 now-elderly survivors of Jiabiangou, this film seeks to lay bare the truth about that period in Chinese history, to show the suffering and aftereffects it inflicted on these accused rightists, and to illustrate the disastrous impact it had on Chinese society as a whole.
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007)
Historical Background In 1957, the Chinese government launched an Anti-Rightist Campaign that included the following populations: urban residents ; those working in governmental organizations, factories, universities, colleges, scientific research and cultural institutions ; members of non-Communist or Democratic party organizations ; and members of various societal and community organizations and associations. The campaign was targeted at those who had voiced criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the first phase of the 1957 Rectification Campaign, a short period sometimes known in the West as the “Hundred Flowers Movement.” Other targets included those who had some past association with the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, whose followers fled to Taiwan in 1949), those who had criticized their bosses or local cadres, those who seemed dissatisfied or disgruntled with the current state of society, and those who had engaged in criminal offenses such as the theft or misuse of state property. Most of the people eventually labeled as “rightists” were well-educated intellectuals working at various levels of government, academia, culture and industry.
Two decades later, between the years of 1978 and 1981, there was a nationwide campaign to pardon most of the accused rightists and restore their political rights, a process known as “reversing the verdict.” Official Chinese government lists included the names of 558,900 accused rightists, but the actual number of pardons issued during this period far outstripped that figure, because many of the accused never had their names submitted to the higher authorities, and thus were not included on the lists. Despite being left out of the official tally, these individuals – whose numbers included many young people, students, workers and citizens targeted at the local or organizational level – were still persecuted and punished as rightists during the 1950s. Today, the overall verdict of the Chinese government is that the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign got out of hand and went too far beyond its intended scope. Nonetheless, neither the CCP nor the Chinese government has completely denounced or negated the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Nine accused rightists died without ever having the verdicts against them overturned.
Using the Present to Speak to the Past 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. This documentary takes as its starting point the present-day lives of the Jiabiangou survivors: their daily routines, their joys and sorrows, their challenges and regrets as they enter into the final years of their lives. Most suffer from the usual illnesses, aches and pains of old age ; some have no family to care for them, and find themselves alone and living in poverty. A smaller number, psychologically unbalanced by the traumas of the past, have been abandoned to grim mental hospitals or old-age homes, with no family or friends to visit them.
Of course, there are others who are financially secure and enjoy a better standard of living, who have children and grandchildren to dote on them, and who are living out their final years in happiness and peace. But even these fortunate survivors are sometimes plagued by nightmares, unable to erase the painful memories of the past. 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. If we were to focus only on narrating past events, the survivors would become nothing more than talking heads, alienating the audience from the events being described onscreen. Because we exist in a different time frame, we cannot rely solely upon our imaginations to return us to the past, or to bridge the gap between past and present truths. In addition, this is a period in Chinese history that will be unfamiliar to many Chinese and most overseas audiences. For the survivors themselves, the Anti-Rightist Campaign is not just history but part of their lives, an experience they lived through. For those who haven’t lived it, it is a tale from the distant past, an experience far removed from our present reality. For this film, I am using a small high-definition video camera to record the present-day lives of the elderly Jiabiangou survivors. By shooting as much footage as possible about the rhythm of their daily lives, and about their stories and reminiscences about the time they spent at Jiabiangou, I hope to provide a chronologically complete and comprehensive portrait of these survivors of the gulag, and to communicate the truth of events as they happened, then and now. For me as a director, this film represents the fulfillment of many, many years of cinematic hopes and ideals.
Written by Wang Bing, October, 2012 Translated by Cindy Carter
Man With No Name
Father and Sons
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir
'Til Madness Do Us Part
Fang Xiuying / 方绣英 – 2017, 86’
Ku Qian / 苦钱 – 2016, 155’
De’ang / 德昂 – 2016, 148’
Yi Zhi / 遗址 – 2014, 25’
Fu yu zi / 父与子 – 2014, 40’
Feng ai / 疯爱 – 2013, 227’
Gudu / 孤独 – 2012, 89’
San zimei / 三姊妹 – 2012, 153’
Jiabiangou / 夹边沟 – 2010, 113’
Wu ming zhe / 无名者 – 2010, 97’
Tong dao / 通道 – 2009, 52’
Caiyou riji / 原油 – 2008, 840’
He Fengming / 和凤鸣 – 2007, 184’
Baoli gongchang / 暴力工厂 – 2007 Short in the anthology O Estado do Mundo (State of the World)
West of the Tracks
Tiexi qu / 铁西区 – 1999-2002, 554’ – Part 1: Rust (244’) – Part 2: Remnants (178’) – Part 3: Rails (132’)
This publication was compiled, edited and published by Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK.
Compiled by Gerard-Jan Claes and Stoffel Debuysere Coordination: Pepa De Maesschalck Translations: Michael Blanga-Gubbay, Cindy Carter, Veva Leye, Sis Matthé, C. Penwarden Copy editing: Rebecca Jane Arthur and Sis Matthé Design: Patrice Deweer Map: Christina Stuhlberger Printed by: Grafikon NV, Flin Graphic Group 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 Sabzian is supported by Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, KASK / School of Arts Ghent, Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie and Beursschouwburg www.sabzian.be Courtisane is supported by the Flemish Community and KASK / School of Arts Ghent www.courtisane.be CINEMATEK is supported by
West of the Tracks (2002)
Shenyang, Liaoning Province
Man with No Name (2010)
The Ditch (2010) Jiuquan, Gansu Province
Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province Beijing
Crude Oil (2008)
Fengming (2007) Lanzhou, Gansu Province
Three Sisters (2012)
Xiyangtang, Yunnan Province
Taâ€™ang (2016) China and Myanmar border area
Bitter Money (2016) Huzhou, Zhejiang Province Shanghai
â€˜Til Madness Do Us Part (2013) Zhaotong, Yunnan Province
Father and Sons (2014) Fumin, Yunnan Province
Mrs. Fang (2017)
Huzhou, Zhejiang Province
Published on the occasion of the Wang Bing focus program at the Courtisane festival 2018 (March 28 - April 1, 2018) and the subsequent progr...
Published on Mar 19, 2018
Published on the occasion of the Wang Bing focus program at the Courtisane festival 2018 (March 28 - April 1, 2018) and the subsequent progr...