(This text was contributed to Mousse 58 for the feature on Documenta14 in 2017)
Wang Bing gained an international reputation for his debut, the nine-hour epic documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003). In Remnants, the second part of Tie Xi Qu, one shot stands out: the snow-covered Yanfen Jie district lies in the bleak, empty frame; the camera tracks in along with advancing footsteps, accompanied by the cameraperson’s occasional breath in the chilly coldness. The ongoing demolition here is coming to a halt. Though streets remain, houses are torn apart, bricks buried under snow. As two men walk across in the distance, the cameraperson pays them slight attention through his lens and then pauses at the street corner, as if to meditate on where to head next.
This was a scene shot between 2000 and 2001. It provides a typically sensational image of Wang Bing himself: the image of an individual filmmaker. He takes the camera alone and enters a location to perform his filming practices. In addition to this there is nothing else, nobody else.
Tie Xi Qu’s more than three hundred hours of raw footage was achieved with this approach. The film was mostly shot between 1999 and 2000. In the almost twenty years since, this has become Wang Bing’s major working methodology. He has been wandering around the vast sites of contemporary China embodying that image as an individual filmmaker. More than ten features have accumulated in his dossier of creations, of which only rare cases—the full-length fiction The Ditch (2010), for example—were completed with a team. In all of his other documentary projects he has either worked alone or with very few partners.
Even though the nature of documentary filmmaking often eschews the need for large teams, for an individual filmmaker, without the emergence of the digital camera in the mid- to late 1990s, this image would not be possible to construct. In this sense, Wang Bing is a film auteur cultivated by the digital era. Tie Xi Qu was shot with a rented Panasonic EZ1. The postproduction, completed in 2003, benefited from a digital editing system set up through funding from the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Wang Bing has a profound understanding of the use of digital tools, which also gives him insights that shape his cinematic aesthetics and consciousness.
This working approach offers a stark contrast with the subject matter and weight of Wang Bing’s films. He is used to handling huge themes from various angles, be they realistic, historical, or political, traversed not just through one singular work but through several. These films often surpass what one might consider a “regular” length, easily stretching to more than two or three hours—certainly if you have seen them, you will agree that the length is what the work demands, whether for Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks; Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), Three Sisters (2012), Ta’ang (2016), or Bitter Money (2016).
Scrutinizing this characteristic geographically, it transpires that Wang Bing seems to possess some special ability. Each time he touches upon some specific place, he arrives with purpose and resolve to excavate that region’s energy. At least this is the inclination shown through his inexorable years of work. His creations in different stages establish clear geographical connections, from the northeast of China (Tie Xi Qu), to the northwest (The Ditch, Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, and Traces , in addition to Man with No Name  and Crude Oil , which were also derived from this process), then from the southwest (Three Sisters, ’Til Madness Do Us Part, Father and Sons , Ta’ang) shifting to the southeast (Bitter Money, Su Xiuying , as well as other works currently in production).
These locations are scattered across the various regions of the country. The path, strung together, almost sketches out a map of the vast enormity of China. Wang Bing keeps investigating and excavating the interior energy buried deep inside. As a practice, it surmounts the pure concepts of geography and space while implicating the notion of time, as all these works were developed and accomplished over long and sustained periods; the objects he is dealing with are also inextricably related to the temporal, whether oriented toward the past or the present.
This engraves the realistic as well as historical sense of Wang Bing’s works. They are all statements of contemporary China, adamantine and harsh, pulsating with heavy and silent power. Sometimes he films individuals, sometimes groups composed of individuals sharing a common destiny and circumstances. They all survive in this society but have no way to make their voices heard. As Wang Bing puts it, “I filmed their life and their feelings toward the world.”
Thus can he capture the manifestation of this era, and how it reflects on China. While distanced from mainstream narration, this description obtains solid evidence of life as it is. During shooting, Wang Bing occasionally talks with his subjects, but more often observes and listens. This position is consistent with his way of being in the films—reticent but tenacious. It is due to his personality as well as the trust he holds on the internal communication and tacit acceptance between filmmaker and subject. He is always attempting to build this aura, searching for the responding aesthetic sense in the shooting sites. Such is also his way of connecting with the world and other people while maintaining his own existence.
This is the source of the profound emotional texture woven into the visible grand themes and realistic narrations of Wang Bing’s work. This emotion does not express itself through words, as seen when he mentions the origin of making Three Sisters. He talks about how he first encountered the three children in the village of Xiyangtang. With no adults at home, the girls sat around the fire in the middle of the living room, roasting potatoes. Yingying (the eldest girl) treated him to one potato. He ended his description here. If you have seen the film, you know that is all they had. When mentioning the filming of Father and Son, Wang Bing only uttered, “I didn’t expect it.” He was referring to the fact that the father and his two adolescent sons took turns to share one single bed for sleeping in their work dormitory.
As a filmmaker, he sees not only desolation but also the remnants of goodness. Even after years of wandering through the grassroots society of China, the degree of hardship and the living conditions are at times still beyond his imagination. Wang Bing never feels indifference to the social reality he witnesses and gets immersed in as well, which ignites his desire for filming, but not just documenting. He is also digging into the strength that sustains people backed into corners, stuck in hard situations. In many cases, besides the survival instinct, that shows itself through the strength of emotion and affection, as in Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, The Ditch, and ’Til Madness Do Us Part.
Despite being an internationally acclaimed film auteur, Wang Bing has walked a tough path in the last nearly twenty years. His image as an individual filmmaker could also be regarded as a metaphor for his relations with the national film system. Actually there is no connection between them. He has stated more than once, “I have never taken a penny from them,” which means neither publicly nor privately. If his projects get financed, it is mainly coming from the European film system, particularly France. When he catches up with urgent topics that lack time to get financed, or the funding is not sufficient, the only way to go forward is depending on himself as well as some support from friends. That’s why for years Wang Bing has always been living a very simple life, which degree of being simple goes beyond people’s imagination. He put all what he received from film back to the film again.
At the same time, aside from pirate DVD pressings and a few screenings in alternative spaces, his films have never been released in mainland China through regular channels such as the cinema or TV. That situation is too farfetched to even be imagined. At a time that the Chinese film industry is booming astonishingly, this condition is ironic yet sad. Wang Bing says: “In a situation like this, through my own efforts to accomplish all this, it’s quite something.” He has reason to say so.Through persistent film practices, Wang Bing affirms the strength and possibility of individual expression. With his accumulating body of work, he refreshes the cinematic language of documentary film in an attempt to expand its frontiers. His retrospective at DOCUMENTA 14 is proof of his achievements.
translated by Zhang Zimu
proofread by Nayeem Mahbub