Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. For August, we will be looking at documentaries that use a digital filmmaking process!
Long form documentary can provide a variety of services. Ken Burns uses his films to explore history in depth, poring over the details, and trying to leave as little out as possible, providing us as close to the complete story as possible. Filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman often use this format to provide the widest possible scope for the topic of his films. The length of films like National Gallery and Welfare allow the audience to feel embedded in the locations that are so central to these films; without the long form format it is difficult to see how this approach would work. Long form can provide a variety of uses, and although many different directors are renowned for their use of it, one filmmaker is head and shoulders above the rest. Rather than poring over details or embedding the audience, his films provide damning evidence of brutal acts of violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable in society.
Wang Bing’s cinema is life changing, and that is not a cliché or an exaggeration. His films change lives. A perfect example of this is his acclaimed 2002 film, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks. At a length of around nine hours, and split into three chapters (Rust, Remnants, and Rails), the film tracks the decline of Shenyang’s industrial district. The film was shot over two years between 1999 and 2001. The film uses its length to explore how this decline is affecting not just workers, but their families, while capturing their growing concerns and how they change over a significant period of time. The film’s setting, the Tiexi district, was once a thriving example of China’s socialist economy, however, with the shift away from this, the workers are left with a lack of safety equipment and raw materials. The families of these workers live in pre-industrial conditions, some living without electricity. Bing manages to capture all of this with an unflinching lens, gathering as much footage as possible to distil into a brutal and monumental piece of work.
As well, something that stands out for West of the Tracks is Wang’s use of DV, an early form of digital filmmaking. The rawness and candid nature of the film is enhanced tenfold by this format, almost adding an extra sense of realism. It’s not that digital filmmaking is “more real” than celluloid, but given the film was shot at the turn of the 21st century, the image quality is similar to that of home movies made around the same period, making the horrors that Wang captures feel visceral and breaking down the otherworldly barrier some documentaries create when shooting an environment many couldn’t begin to imagine.
Wang Bing is one of the most lauded documentarians in the world and it is easy to see why. West of the Tracks is not only influential for its ground-breaking approach to shedding light on state mismanagement, but also for its use of digital technology to do so. Twenty years on from the turn of the millennium and it is hard to imagine controversy surrounding digital filmmaking, but it certainly was there. West of the Tracks proves how vital a resource it can be.
Header image courtesy of Wang Bing Film Workshop