Wang Bing’s 506-minute documentary ‘Dead Souls’ fully captures the genuine stories of the people from the Chinese re-education camps through their own voices. Director Wang Bing jots down the governmental authority’s power-wielding backed by Maoism through his movie.

Dead Souls is available from Icarus Films 

Before the Cultural Revolution, there was an undeveloped history of China in the 1950s when the authorities pressed a civilian, ‘anti-rightist’ campaign issued by the Chinese Communist Party. Many people were condemned as ‘rightists’ and sent to re-education camps. It was said that most of so-called ‘rightist’ prisoners were sentenced to indefinite imprisonment without legit trials, and they could not appeal to the higher court as other ordinary prisoners were able to do so.

This movie consists of the testimonials of the survivors from the re-education camps in the Mingshui and Jiabinggou in the Gobi desert, in the northwestern part of China. Director Wang Bing interviewed more than 120 survivors of re-education camps between 2005 and 2017 from various provinces of China. We can see him in the interviews; however, he does not disrupt the interviewees but just listens to their stories. Unlike other documentary films that file a complaint against society with angry voices, he collects the situation at that time with remarkable equanimity. His distance from the subjects arouses the sympathy of the audience.

There is no tension or specific plot that connects the movie. The format of listening to the stories of the interviewees at their modest living rooms applies to every interview. Following the stories told by the survivors, we learn that those people rarely have something in common. They are mainly ordinary civilians who fell victim to the cult-like ideology of those days. Some of them were senior civil servants who just got in an argument with their superior cadres at the time. Some people suddenly faced the criticism of the society because of a comment they uttered in passing, and they were forced to conduct ‘Self-Criticism’ in front of the people.

At the beginning of the movie, one survivor looks back to the “5 per cent doctrine” by Mao which was prevailing in the 1950s. According to Mao’s view, 5 per cent of society is contaminated by a bad idea of ‘the right’  and it is necessary to separate those infected from society, to maintain the strong, firm Communism state. In other words, the decisions of imprisonment were made by chance. All of a sudden, their lives fell into a bottomless pit, starving to death, being forced to work and being deprived of their rights.

Director Wang also spares some time to add the testimonials of the prison guards. The former old guard denies the allegations made by the survivors. Following the conflicting stories from different parties, then the audience can solve the history as if they were putting together the pieces of a puzzle.

It is hard to say if “Dead Souls” entertains the audience as ordinary commercial films do; instead, it exposes painful memories. However, this movie has a value as it enlightens people, in order to prevent the massacres of the past. In addition, it reveals that the role of a film is to capture the essence society.