Wednesday’s out-of-competition screening in Cannes of Dead Souls—at over eight hours, the longest film ever to be included in the Official Selection—continues Wang Bing’s remarkable trajectory as an essential documentarian. Not just in China, but anywhere. Just last summer, Wang won the Golden Leopard at Locarno for Mrs. Fang, a portrait of a dying woman and her immediate family. With Dead Souls, Wang broadens his scope to address the “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” during which more than half a million people were purged from the Communist Party from 1957 to 1959 and sentenced to “re-education,” that is, hard labor in a gulag in the province of Gansu in northwest China.
Wang began interviewing survivors in 2005 and finally completed Dead Souls last year. As A. A. Dowd writes at the A.V. Club, his subjects “[regale] the director’s often-static lens with stories that have gone largely untold—or deliberately repressed or distorted—in the half a century since. What we’re witnessing, then, is a kind of oral history of a genocide: a spiritual relative, in length and grueling subject matter, to one of the most significant documentaries ever made, Claude Lanzmann’s landmark Holocaust memorial Shoah.”
Nearly every reviewer so far has mentioned Shoah, including Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who argues that Dead Souls “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. . . . Dead Souls isn’t about the banality of evil, but it is about the bureaucracy of death.”
In the Notebook, Lawrence Garcia adds that it’s “a film that resists summative statements and distilled impressions—necessarily so; its essence is in the fullness of its attention. Which is not to say that Wang refuses to editorialize . . . But, systematically and thoroughly, the storied Chinese documentarian does ensure that the attention rests squarely on the words and gestures of those on-screen.”
Wang’s is “a form of cinema that begins to feel more like living with the people on screen than merely watching them,” observes Nicolas Rapold in piece on the filmmaker for the New York Times.
Profiling Wang for the South China Morning Post, Clarence Tsui notes that filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming “reported being harassed by local cadres and security personnel” for her own work on the Anti-Rightist Campaign, but “Wang declines to say whether he completed Dead Souls under increased pressure and scrutiny from the state, or if he is worried about repercussions.” And talking to Eugénie Malinjod, who’s interviewed him for the festival, Wang emphasizes: “I have been making films for eighteen years and have always been able to film freely and without any interference.”
Update, 5/27: Writing for the House Next Door and Sight & Sound, both Sam C. Mac and Giovanni Marchini Camia, respectively, emphasize the significance of the film’s length. Some of these testimonies “overlap with each other, and even become repetitive, but it's ultimately this unification of perspective that gives Dead Souls its authority,” writes Mac, and Marchini Camia adds that they accumulate “into a vehement and incontrovertible j’accuse.”
Wang tells Annabel Brady-Brown at the Notebook that he tries “not to worry about things that are beyond my control or that I am not able to do anything about, like the distribution in China.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.