As 83-year-old Qi Luji explains in Dead Souls, the reason he chose to work in the canteen at China’s Jiabiangou re-education labor camp in 1958 was because he had heard a story about a couple with five daughters and one young son who, some time earlier, had been staying at the facility. Faced with crushing hunger, the father had decided to kill his boy and eat him. Intervening, his eldest daughter argued that the family needed a male heir, and that she should be sacrificed instead. Heeding her advice, the father stabbed his oldest girl to death and consumed her.
This was, Qi qualifies somewhat unpersuasively, just a rumor. Nonetheless, “It made your blood run cold. We were in danger. It was bad. People were starving to death.”
Rife with tales that will chill you to the bone, Dead Souls is an eight-hour documentary from director Wang Bing, and—opening today at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives, where it’s screening in three installments—it’s a lot to sign up for, no matter your moviegoing constitution. Still, this non-fiction opus, shot between 2005-2017, is not only one of the year’s most bracing cinematic experiences, but also one of its most vital. An act of historical excavation and preservation that illustrates the power of testimony, Bing’s latest (a companion piece to his 2010 drama The Ditch) is an achievement with a higher purpose: to give voice to victims of a mass atrocity, both so they’re heard and so, hopefully, future generations can prevent such a nightmare from reoccurring.
The calamity in question is communist China’s pre-Cultural Revolution decision to send anyone deemed a “rightist” (i.e. an enemy of the Party) to labor-camp farms, where they were to be “re-educated” through working the arid, infertile land. As conceived by Mao Zedong, it was simply an excuse to silence dissenters, and quickly became a means by which individuals could get rid of rivals—or anyone that simply rubbed them the wrong way—by ratting them out for any supposed infraction. Among the numerous elderly people interviewed by Bing, not a single one has a good explanation for precisely how they wound up in Jiabiangou or Mingshui, the two labor camps examined in Dead Souls (the latter best known for boasting a giant mass grave). One day, they were professionals with lifelong Communist allegiances; the next, they were being handed scraps of paper deeming them rightists, and being transferred by train and/or bus to their desolate new homes.
Dead Souls is comprised of prolonged interviews with camp survivors—most of them men, since that’s who populated them—that Bing films in largely static, uninterrupted takes. From a viewing perspective, that style can be trying, even as he sporadically cuts away to lengthy scenes of a burial procession marked by wailing relatives, and a modern-day trip to the former Mingshui camp site, where human skeletal remains sit on top of the ground, discarded like so much trash. Yet like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, an inspiration for Bing’s extended approach (which he also employed for 2003’s masterful 9-hour Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks), it allows his film—and those who watch it—to bear true, unfiltered witness to his subjects’ ordeals.
Dead Souls is a first-person record of human monstrousness, and the longer it runs, the more one understands that it’s a privilege to be in these aged men’s presence, watching and listening to them as they share unthinkable personal memories. While no specific figures are known, China sent thousands to the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps in late 1958, and returned those that were still alive to their families in 1961. That wasn’t many, since most perished due to starvation—this after living in holes dug into the ground out on the dusty, windy plains, which they worked to no appreciable end. Because their letters home were monitored, they could barely request supplies from relatives; and even when they did, those packages often didn’t make it to them. Left to carry out endless toil on paltry grain rations, they wasted away to nothing, and then dropped like flies (a chilly winter night was enough to wipe out half a dozen prisoners at a time), their corpses dumped in shallow ditches.
It’s thus no surprise to hear, at multiple points in Dead Souls, that when confronted by this situation, some camp residents took to cannibalism for nourishment. Even when they didn’t resort to such horribly extreme measures, however, their destitution and desperation was devastating. Eighty-six-year-old Xing De recounts how men would leap into pig pens to steal watermelon rinds away from the animals, and how he would save some of his urine in a bottle so he’d have something to drink when his thirst became unbearable. “It was total chaos,” he muses, including for those fortunate enough to work in the kitchens, where, as Bing’s collected narratives elucidate, extra portions could be covertly consumed, thereby providing the best chance for survival.
Long-buried horrors come back to life in Dead Souls, which damns the Chinese for a program deliberately designed not for “re-education” but, rather, mass extermination. Bing’s unblinking gaze at these unfortunate individuals, permanently scarred by their torture, exudes deep respect and empathy. Though his questions regularly help move his interviews along, he allows his speakers to express themselves in whatever rambling, sorrowful, teary, angry or haunted manner they like. Be it pious Li Jinghang, whose religion helped see him through his toughest times, or Zhou Xiaoli, whose drunken fury seethes off the screen, Bing’s interviewees are the faces of true suffering, which lasted long after they’d finally been set free from their “hell on Earth.”
“Death was a part of our daily lives. There was no point in being afraid,” says Zhu Zhaonan, one of the cadres who helped run Jiabiangou, and Dead Souls is, among many other things, a portrait of man’s capacity for dehumanizing—and annihilating—his fellow man, all in service of nationalist insanity. That China’s internment-camp practice continues today, in secret, only further underscores the timelessness of Bing’s film, whose closing trek through the Mingshui killing grounds—where femurs, humeri and skulls decorate the soil—makes clear that the past is never truly past.