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Cannes Diary: How Wang Bing’s eight-hour-plus documentary stirred the film festival

Wang Bing's Dead Souls examines the Maoist regime’s campaign against rightists launched in 1956.

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Oppressive regimes the world over fear artists as much as activists. In solidarity with persecuted filmmakers, the Cannes Film Festival has filled its official selection with works by directors who are variously under house arrest, censored or threatened with severe state sanction. The films may then carry the stigma of being chosen for political rather than aesthetic reasons, but such is clearly not the case this year.

The Soviet director Kirill Serebrennikov became a victim of Putin’s cultural politics, confined under house arrest after being charged for embezzling state funds, an incarceration that a Russian judge recently extended to ensure that the director could not attend the Cannes festival.

Surprisingly, Serebrennikov’s film in competition, Leto, disappoints partly because it is so anodyne, with nary a trace of anger or bitterness against a state that has long censored its artists. (Serebrennikov’s last film, The Student, was far more political.) Shot in widescreen black and white, Leto is a fondly nostalgic evocation of Leningrad’s underground rock scene in the early eighties, where T-Rex and Lou Reed ruled.

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A character emerges from time to time with the Brechtian reminder that “This Did Not Happen,” but Leto is in fact based on the true story of the short-lived Russian singer Viktor Tsoi. Despite its many forays into MTV-like song sequences that combine animation with live action, Leto (which means “summer”) is both a traditional love story and rock musical, at times reminiscent of the larky Beatles classic A Hard Day’s Night. The film’s few digs at state suppression appear mildly satiric, even wistful: sharp-faced guards attempting to ensure that concert audiences don’t so much as sway their bodies, and a rock club official rejecting such lyrics as, “Ooh, ooh, mama mama” as provocatively un-Soviet.

Still to come in competition is Three Faces from Jafar Panahi, whom Iranian authorities have attempted to prevent from making films since he was arrested for trying to make a documentary about the Green Revolution. Panahi has craftily eluded their strictures, most famously smuggling his marvellous This is Not a Film to Cannes on a USB stick hidden in a cake. (This oft-repeated tale has a whiff of apocrypha about it, but Panahi is a master of narrative conjuration.) Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of Cannes’ opening night film, Everybody Knows, said at his news conference that barring Panahi from leaving Iran is “something that I have difficulty living with.” By giving Three Faces a prize, as the jury at the Berlin FIlm Festival did with Panahi’s last film, Taxi, the Cannes jury could help spotlight the director’s plight.

Banned by the Kenyan government, which has declared that it is illegal to even possess a DVD of the film, Wanuri Kahiu’s moving lesbian love story, Rafiki, is ironically the first film from that African country to be chosen by Cannes. Adorned with an exhilarating credit sequence, made on a shoestring budget but splendidly shot and well acted, Rafiki portrays the affair between two young women, one tomboyish and averse to dresses, the other decidedly femme with a cascade of rainbow-dyed dreads and endless supply of gaudy frocks. Despite an over-reliance on emo music and a touch of schematism in the narrative – each woman is a daughter of a politician competing in local elections – the film is confident, surprisingly so in its loving evocation of Nairobi. One wonders, for instance, if the interstitial shots of laundry and buildings that Kahiu employs as punctuation throughout the film are derived from similar “pillow shots” in the films of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu.

No film at Cannes can equal the immensity in length, importance and impact of Chinese auteur Wang Bing’s harrowing eight-hour-plus documentary, Dead Souls. Wang is intrepid and relentless in his exploration of a taboo subject: the Maoist regime’s campaign against rightists launched in 1956, a precursor to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution a decade later. Thousands of “rightists” – a term that came to include everyone from Christians and Kuomintang supporters to one man whose quiet reservation marked him for exile because “the most docile dogs are often the most savage” – were shipped to “re-education” camps in the Gobi desert to self-criticize and read Mao.

Wang Bing tracked down more than 100 survivors of the Maoist regime’s camps.

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In a heroic act of historical memorial, Wang tracked down more than 100 aged survivors of the camps and recorded their accounts of imprisonment. Most inmates died from starvation, the pursuit of food and the agonies of constipation inevitably becoming governing motifs in Wang’s welter of interviews. Wang also revisits the past by trudging through the tufted dunes where the camps once stood, his camera gazing intently upon the evidence of countless enforced deaths: skulls scattered across the sand, a femur here, a leg bone there.

Whether Wang can ever return to China after the revelations of Dead Souls, under the increasingly oppressive control of Xi Jinping, appears questionable.

The Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, who won an Oscar for his last film, Ida, makes state censorship of art his focus in Cold War, an elegant, ambitious story of amour fou that opens in Communist Poland in 1949 and ends in the early sixties. The film’s protagonist, a researcher of Polish folk music, leaves the country for Paris to escape the Stalinist strictures that have distorted the art he reveres.

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Given the campaign of the current right-wing government in Poland, which has exerted its control over the arts, particularly over museums, to further its Christian-nationalist agenda, Pawlikowski may find that his Cold War has unintended, insidious resonance.

James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

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