One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).
It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.
The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.
Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing 王兵; Length 551 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016.