The filmmaker, however, doesn’t believe that documentary filmmaking can adequately capture or reflect reality. For him, the relationship between the two doesn’t exist in practical terms.
“Reality is a term used academically to discuss documentary cinema. It is a concept, a way of thinking about the world. To me, the so-called reality in documentary is nothing more than emotional truth, or to be truthful and respectful of the person or event depicted,” the director explains.
The recovery of history is central to Wang’s cinematic endeavors, and is driven by an urge to fill the void left by the nation’s collective amnesia of its past and the rapid disappearance of people, places and ways of life. After three years of interviews with more than 100 survivors which took him across China — from Shanghai and Guangzhou to Tianjin and Xinjiang — Wang completed his debut feature The Ditch (夾邊溝) in 2010. Based on Chinese writer Yang Xianhui’s (楊顯惠) book Goodbye Jiabiangou (夾邊溝記事), the film is a historically accurate account of the tragedy that happened at a labor camp located in Gansu Province’s Gobi Desert in 1960. It was a time when the nation was plagued by the widespread famine that came to be known as the Three Years of Great Chinese Famine (三年大饑荒, 1958 to 1961). Nearly 3,000 “rightists” were sent to the camp for re-education. Most of them starved to death. Only 300 people survived.
Wang points out that as the making of historical drama often involves too much complexity for independent filmmakers to overcome, it is all the more important to realize the project when he has a chance.
“My parent’s generation couldn’t have made this kind of film. But I raised the money and made it the way I wanted. And though it was difficult to make the film with limited resources, it was particularly important to complete it,” he says.
Wang’s cinematic writing of history comes from personal experiences and perspectives. Grand historical viewpoints and discourses don’t interest him as they only frame and shape the way history is perceived, he says.
“To me, history is a moment of a person’s life which touches that person’s inner world in a profound way. It is not difficult to depict the macroscopic. But true history lies in one day, one hour, one moment of truth in someone’s life,” he muses. “In my documentaries, I don’t tell the whole story of a person; I portray a moment in its entirety.”
Fengming: a Chinese Memoir is an eloquent example of Wang’s approach. He Fengming (和鳳鳴), a retired journalist the director encountered while he researched the fictional project, is the sole heroine in the three-hour cinematic oral history that reveals He’s personal account of the anti-rightist campaign she barely survived. Her husband was among those who died at the labor camp of Jiabiangou.
Deceptively simple, the film opens with the elderly woman trudging up a pathway toward her flat, settling into a chair in the living room and speaking directly to the camera across a table as night gradually falls. The flow of her narrative carefully coincides with the changing light and the progression of time so as to create a still, almost sepulchral space where the elderly survivor seems to only exist in her own memory of the past, Wang says.