To Film What Is Spoken: Wang Bing on “Beauty Lives in Freedom”
“I tell the story as it happened. I don’t want to make things up, I don’t need to. What is happening in China is more absurd, and more inconceivable, than any fiction.” Chinese artist and philosopher Gao Ertai is referring to the tiny notes he hid in the lining of his clothes whilst confined in Jiabiangou, a re-education camp used during the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the years from 1957 to 1961. But he could also be describing the work of renowned Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing.
Wang’s documentaries currently come in two distinct modes: observational portraits of those marginalized by China’s rapid economic growth and confessional interviews about the political repression during Maoism. His latest, Beauty Lives in Freedom (2018), falls into the latter, a five-hour interview with Gao in the artist’s Las Vegas home. The film received its UK premiere at this year’s Frames of Representation festival, an annual event held at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts that aims to question the modes of speech that define the “cinema of the real.” Before the screening, Wang conducted a masterclass with film scholar and critic Erika Balsom, in which he discussed his approach to creating non-fiction works in a country where reality is constantly in flux.
“I’m not against fiction in art, I actually quite like it,” explains Wang when asked why he almost exclusively makes non-fiction films. “In China, fiction means something different than it does in the West. It involves turning away from reality. But I think it’s difficult to define the boundaries between fiction and reality, because whenever reality is presented through art, [it] is already the interpretation of the artist. I record my subjects directly and try my best not to change anything by filming them.” Although they both share a hunger for documenting the unseen reality of life in modern China, Wang is reluctant for his own work to be compared to Gao’s, who has written extensively on his experience in the labor camp where he was detained following his essay, “On Beauty” — an attack on the subjectivity of aesthetics that was in direct opposition to government policy at the time.
“I see myself as a much simpler documentarian than Gao, and I don’t feel like I’m qualified to tell his story,” explains Wang before going on to describe the micrographic poems and texts Gao created on scraps of discarded paper during his time as a political detainee. He now keeps these tattered scrolls in plastic binders made for storing photographs, with each one recalling a different memory of his time in the camp. “He wrote these notes in tiny characters so no one would find them. It was incredibly dangerous. I’m interested in Gao as an artist, but also because he’s part of a group of intellectuals who experienced a lot during this period. Very few of them commented on the reality of the political situation they lived through, but Gao kept a record of everything that was happening to him and the world around him. I believe he wasn’t documenting to make a political statement but to fulfil his responsibility as an educated person.”
Beauty Lives in Freedom follows Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), Dead Souls (2018), and, to a lesser extent, Wang’s first foray into fiction, The Ditch (2010), in presenting an oral history of the Jiabiangou labor camp. Located on the edge of the Gobi Desert, the camp held prisoners designated as “rightists” during Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. The film’s coda explains that, out of the 3,200 “dissidents” interned there, roughly only 500 survived, with many dying from starvation. It’s a period of China’s past that has never figured prominently in the nation’s history books, and to this day it remains a taboo topic. “I got to know the subject by chance,” explains Wang when asked why he has returned to this period of Chinese history so many times. “This movement happened before I was born, so I had very little knowledge of it. Fengming was the beginning of my learning about the Anti-Rightist movement in China, and I actually filmed a lot of the footage for Dead Souls during this time.” He continues. “It wasn’t until five years later that I began to form a more general picture of the whole movement. I live in modern-day China, and I try to film stories about the world around me, but at the same time, there is this hidden history I want to show. As an individual, I think my power is limited, so it’s best I try and tell the story as fully as I can, which is why I have made four films about this subject.”
Composed almost entirely of testimony from Gao regarding his victimization by the Chinese government, which would become the basis for his works on aesthetics and alienation, Beauty Lies in Freedom is testament to the power of oral history. Adopting the same patient approach of Fengming, the film is an exercise in listening, with Wang providing Gao free reign to discuss anything that comes to mind; from one particularly heart-breaking story about the time he sat with his daughter at his wife’s grave until two in the morning waiting for her ghost, to describing the type of gruel they were given to eat. Wang’s flair for creating timeless zones within his documentaries generates a kind of detached immersion that allows moments like these to emerge organically. “I set no limits during these interviews, and I never try to stop or control what they talk about,” he explains, “I believe authenticity lies in the small details, like the food they ate and how they prepared it. When people talk about the past, certain events get exaggerated whilst others are minimized or forgotten. I don’t really want to make a political film; my intention is for the audience to experience what happened in 1957 from a certain perspective. I am trying to capture a brief fragment of time. My responsibility is to get as close as I can to the real event, and the kind of lives these people experienced.”
The bulk of the film is shot from a static camera, pointed at the seated figure of Gao Ertai. This approach might not have the same visual impact of Wang’s inquiring, observational films like Bitter Money (2016), Ta’ang (2016), or Mrs. Fang (2017), but the emotional impact remains. “I’m not a pushy person, when my subjects don’t want to speak anymore, I stop filming,” he explains. “When I interview, I like to keep my camera on a tripod. For me, my filmmaking is just a way of empowering my subjects and enabling them to tell their story. I see myself as a tool for them. I use basic film language because I know my story is best expressed through words.” Even at 265 minutes — a modest runtime for Wang — this almost puritanical focus on Gao’s testimony forces the viewer to experience the slow passage of time, allowing for a much deeper connection with his story. “The films I make aren’t really suitable for commercial release,” Wang replies after it’s implied that his latest film could be categorized as a short compared to gargantuan films like West of the Tracks (2003) and Crude Oil (2008) and 15 Hours (2017). “My primary concern is to tell the story as completely as I can. A lot of my films are shown in museums, where those who are interested can watch for as long as they like. Others will just give it a cursory glance. The runtimes of my films have, and always will be, open to the audience’s interpretation.”
The 2019 edition of Frames of Representation took place between April 12 and April 20.