DAFilms Selects: Wang Bing's Dead Souls

We have celebrated Wang Bing's cinematic investigations of Chinese contemporary reality and recent history here at DAFilms before. Now we are delighted to put special emphasis on one film by Wang that can easily be regarded as the culmination of his life's work.

Dead Souls is the Chinese master documentarian's Cannes-selected 8-hour epic accounting of the crimes of the Chinese state in the course of the so-called "anti-rightist" campaigns of the 1950s. You can access the film on DAFilms in three parts. In Gansu Province, northwest China, lie the remains of countless prisoners left to die in the Gobi Desert sixty years ago. Designated as “ultra-rightists” in the Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, they starved to death in the Jiabiangou and Mingshui reeducation camps, often eating only dirt or mud to eke out what remained of an existence. Wang has dramatised the ordeals at Jiabiangou before in his only fiction film, The Ditch, a product of the decades-long research that eventually became Dead Souls. This virtually peerless documenting of the testimony of the survivors of the camps invites us to discover firsthand—through their own words, which Wang records meticulously—who these persons were, the hardships they were forced to endure, and what became their destiny as the camps faded into painful memory.

This isn't an easy film, but is an essential one. Much of what is said by these survivors—often with disarming matter-of-factness—is painful to absorb. Yet Wang's film is a stark, often beautiful testiment to the act of remembering, a truly essential work of accounting of one of the darkest moments in the 20th century that nobody who sees it will be able to forget.

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