An eight-hour-and-15-minute documentary is not something you walk into lightly, especially when its subject is the imprisonment and slow-motion murder of human beings. But Wang Bing’s “Dead Souls” is a powerfully sobering and clear-eyed investigation that justifies its length through the gravity and presence of its testimony. Wang, like Claude Lanzmann in “Shoah,” isn’t just making a historical documentary; he’s using oral memoir to forge an artifact of history. “Dead Souls” has its longueurs, and it may not be as staggering a work as “Shoah” or Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” but it does just what a movie that’s this long should: It uses its intimate sprawl to catalyze your view of something — in this case, how the totalitarianism of the 20th century actually worked. (One is tempted to say: quite well.)
Almost the entire film consists of interviews with survivors of the Jiabiangou and Mingshui re-education camps, which were set up by China’s Communist regime during the late ’50s in the scrubby wasteland of the Gobi Desert. The country was coming up on ten years of Communist rule (the revolution happened in 1949), and a great many adult citizens were former Nationalists. Everywhere you looked, people were suspected of not having the correct ideology — of being “rightists.”
The infractions, which were often minor, emerged from an insidiously deceptive government campaign, launched in 1956, that was given ample coverage in Wang’s 2007 documentary “Fengming, a Chinese Memoir.” The campaign was an organized form of entrapment: Citizens were invited to express their criticisms of the Communist Party, but the effect was to flush out anyone who had strayed from the true path. In “Dead Souls,” one witness explains that his crime was voicing agreement with a newspaper article that advocated diversity of opinion. What no one knew (yet) is that Mao’s regime was beginning its evolution toward the abolition of individuality. In the late ’50s, to have your own thoughts in China was to commit thought crime.
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By 1966, of course, the situation would grow much worse, as Mao launched the cult-like uniformity and oppression of the Cultural Revolution. But one reason, I think, that Wang has devoted such a lengthy and meditative and demanding movie to the earlier years of Communist oppression is that he’s out to demonstrate how the tyrannical brutality of Mao’s regime wasn’t something that spun “out of control” as time went on. It did, but the madness was right there in the formative years.
Wang visited most of China’s provinces, hunting down and interviewing 120 survivors over the course of three years (most of the interviews were recorded from 2005 to 2008). The men we hear — and they are almost all men — are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, well-preserved but fragile and soft-spoken, seated in their modest cramped living rooms, most of them disarmingly neutral in their recollections. They describe their existence in the camps as a form of non-being; they were ghosts melting away. The word “re-education” has always conjured the image of adults being forced to sit at school desks and recite Mao’s Little Red Book for 14 hours a day, and one witness talks about how, before getting sent to Jiabiangou, he was forced to attend endless “criticism” sessions.
In the desert, however, just about the only thing he and the others got to do was starve. They were fed next to nothing — a thin gruel made of beetroot leaves that one witness says looked like snot. It wasn’t enough. So they spent their days hunting for, and stealing, whatever food they could. A train that came through carrying waste from restaurants left bits of noodles and vegetable peelings on the track; they would eat dirty watermelon rinds. Over time, they would get bloated, then shrink, until they stopped looking like themselves. They wore rags and walked like zombies, using their entire waist to take one lurching step at a time. Their punishment was to live in hell and — in most cases — to die. Wang spends an hour of the film at Mingshui, the site of a mass grave, where fragments of human bone are still everywhere. The survivors gather and create a bonfire out of money, which they offer to the fallen comrades whose deaths made it possible for them to live.
This is Wang’s third film about the re-education camps, after “Fengming” and 2010’s “The Ditch” (his rare foray into staged drama), and his fixation on the period works as a corrective to decades of coercive illusion that still exist in China (and, in a way, the U.S.).
Mao, the grand architect of Chinese Communism, remains the greatest propagandist — and, by dint of sheer numbers, the most horrendous killer — of the 20th century. The result of his policies (the purges, the camps, the famine) was the extermination of more human beings than were killed by Hitler and Stalin combined. It’s true that not all those deaths were dictionary-definition acts of murder. Yet the mass starvation that went on in China raises a metaphysical question about the issue of intentionality: Was Mao simply a disastrous leader who failed to feed and sustain the lives of millions of his people? Or was there a genocidal aspect to all that death? Did Mao, like Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” (apologies for the comparison, but it’s a vivid and illustrative one), realize that he had a population/hunger problem he couldn’t solve, and so he dealt with it by passively allowing a hideous percentage of the Chinese population to die?
“Dead Souls” never confronts that question head-on, but the film addresses it anecdotally, with its excruciatingly close-up portrait of the re-education camps as hidden death zones. Those camps were more than a punishment — they were an experiment in political murder. They were also a warning: If you question the Party, this will happen to you. “Dead Souls” isn’t about the banality of evil, but it is about the bureaucracy of death. It’s a film that countless people in China will want to see, even though they probably won’t get the chance to do so except through clandestine means. In the United States, it’s hard to imagine the movie being programmed in a theatrical context, yet it was all but made for the age of streaming. In 1985, when Claude Lanzmann released “Shoah,” its 9-and-a-half-hour length seemed impossibly exotic. But “Dead Souls” fits all too snugly into an era of long-form documentary. For anyone inclined to discover its truths, it’s a chronicle you’ll want to follow to the bitter end.