Insights > Making An Epic Documentary By Accident?
25 Nov 2005

Making An Epic Documentary By Accident?

I met Wang Bing, the winner of “The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize” (The Grand Prize) at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, while shooting a documentary there on Chinese documentarians. Wang Bing came to Yamagata with his first documentary, Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks, which has made quite a tour around the world—setting off from Berlin, it has traveled to Lisbon, Marseille, Toronto, New York, Yamagata, and, most recently, London. It has received several grand prizes and has been placed in the permanent collection at the Modern Museum of Art in New York. Born in 1967, Wang Bing studied photography before entering the Cinematography Department of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy in 1995. In 1998, he began working as an independent filmmaker and directed a feature film titled Distortion. The shooting of Tie Xi Qu began in late 1999 and lasted for about two years.

Why and how did Wang Bing conceive this documentary? The director said that he was first impressed by the spectacles of Tie Xi Qu (or Tiexi District), Shenyang, China, when he took photographs there for a school project. In 1999, when he could not get funding for his second feature film, he went back to the factory district with a digital video camera and without a clear goal in his mind. His first problem was to get into the district, but once he got on a train traveling into the district, he was immediately accepted by three men who would become the three main characters in his film. The film is an epic not only in its length and spectacular visuals, but also in its sense of grandeur in a time when great changes affected the lives of thousands of people. For Wang Bing, however, there are two many “accidental” decisions he had to make in the shooting of this documentary: he chose to focus on three factories from among over one hundred factories in the district; and he chose to focus on three men from among the thousands who work and live there. And, remarkably, he did not even think about making a documentary when he began shooting.

Two things about Tie Xi Qu have greatly impressed its audiences. First, the film is nearly nine hours long. In Yamagata’s and other festivals’ schedules, one theatre was totally devoted to the screening of the film from morning till night, with two breaks between its three parts—Rust, Remnants, and Rails—which run 240 minutes, 175 minutes and 130 minutes respectively. Did Wang Bing think about his audience? Of course yes, but he was more concerned about the work itself: “It deserves its length. If a viewer does not like it, he can always walk away.” In Yamagata and elsewhere, however, most viewers sat through the nine hours. In fact, Berlinale organizers told him three hours was the upper limit, but he sent a 300-minute-long version to its Youth Forum. Then, with the help of a Rotterdam fund, he made the nine-hour version. Violating the golden rule about length, the film became the talk of all the festivals it has been to: It indeed challenged audiences, but it also gave them a different viewing experience—is that not what festival audiences are after?

The second thing that has impressed audiences is Wang Bing’s film visuals. Although he used a small, non-professional DV, his images are stunning when compared to those made by other independent Chinese filmmakers. Tie Xi Qu reveals its director’s good training in art and cinematography as well as the unique spectacles of Tiexi District of Shenyang—a factory district that was first established by the Japanese during the 1930s for the purpose of making gun parts. After 1949, the district was expanded and reached its ultimate glory in the 1960s. When Wang Bing began shooting in 1999, the district had been in decline for some years though the factories were still operating. By 2001, however, 6000 workers had been laid off and the once lively district became a deserted area of empty factories. When I asked Wang Bing what he felt was his luckiest moment when making the film, he said that it was catching the snow scenes when he went to the district to shoot for the last time: “It snowed right after I got there. It was the kind of snow that occurs on a relatively warmer and damper winter day, when the snowflakes are huge and are floating rather than falling. It was then that I got the snowy sequence for the opening of my film.”

When asked about the theme of his epic documentary, Wang Bing said, “Although I happened to shoot the people in my film and presented the district in my way, the theme of a declining dream from the past is not an accident.” The director then added, “For a perfect documentary, I should have begun shooting in 1985, or maybe in the 1970s when the factories were at their most glorious. Now, when you look at this district, it only reminds us of a dream that was once too big; back then, people thought the district would grow endlessly.” Wang Bing does not agree that his film is just about the workers who have been laid off, though his film presents many of them. This epic is not just about rails, machines and chimneys, but is also about workers and, especially, a father and a son who make a living by assisting the workers. The touching moments of human emotion complete a film about a once thriving area now in decline.

For the Japanese audience, the feeling of nostalgia became doubly amplified because their ancestors built these factories in what they used to call Manchuria. There were quite a number of Japanese people who were born there or lived there. I met a group of film critics and scholars from Tokyo who came to Yamagata just to watch Tie Xi Qu. They told me stories about the factories and had lengthy discussions with Wang Bing, who listened more than he talked. A lady from the selection committee of the film festival told Wang Bing and she was very touched by the film’s representation of how the factories were getting old and rusty. Wang Bing later told me that at emotional level he communicated more with people in Yamagata than at any other film festival.

When asked about his next project, Wang Bing said it would be a fiction film partially sponsored by a Cannes fund. It was never his intention to be just a documentary filmmaker. In fact, he believes that both fiction- and non-fiction films should share the same language: “A documentary is still a film.” Tie Xi Qu reveals the director’s detachment and careful distance from its object of filming. It is not the type of film to provoke debates on the documentarian’s ethnical attitudes in any sense. Wang Bing said that the people in his film treated him very well but that they had more important things to concern them than minding what he was doing. Japanese documentary master Ogawa Shinsuke once said that the world of documentaries was created by both the filmmaker and the people being filmed. In Tie Xi Qu’s case, it is amazing that the people being filmed participate so well without really comprehending what the filmmaker is trying to do. This seems to be yet more evidence that this epic documentary is a production by accident. When I talked to Wang Bing about his past experiences and future plans, however, I had the feeling that he has prepared himself to take any opportunity that comes into his way.

While looking at the history of Chinese filmmakers’ participation in Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival since 1989, the Festival’s Chairman, Mr. Yano Kazuyuki, sees a remarkable trend over the years. In 1989, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Horse Thief was invited from China, but it was not even a documentary film. Two years later, Wu Wenguang came with his Bumming in Beijing, which is now regarded as the first work of the New Documentary Movement in China. At that time, audiences around the world rarely saw documentaries about ordinary Chinese people, and Bumming in Beijing was a surprise for everyone. In 2003, a good number of documentaries with a great variety of themes and styles were submitted to Yamagata, and Tie Xi Qu was the grand prize winner. We anticipate seeing many more good films from Wang Bing in the future, whether documentary or feature.

Dr. S. Louisa Wei

About the writer:
Dr. S. Louisa Wei is an assistant professor who teaches in the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong. She is also an independent documentary producer, critic and curator. .

What is the film about?
Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks
CHINA / 2003 / Chinese / Color / Video / 545 min

Film Synopsis:

The film is made up of three parts: 1. Rust, 2. Remnants and 3. Rails. Wang Bing made a more than exhaustive portrait of the industrial district Tie Xi in northeastern China.

The Tie Xi district, in Shenyang in China’s northeast, was established during the Japanese occupation and transformed into a highly populated industrial area. This unusually long-form documentary, taking us on a tour of this now decaying area, spreads over nine hours and three parts entitled Rust, Remnants, and Rails. Factories and towns become ruins, people are buffeted by change, and time ebbs away. An extraordinary documentary that puts the realities facing Chinese society into stark relief, through an exclusive and extended exploration of the region.