The Oxidation of the Documentary

The Oxidation of the Documentary – on the films of Wang Bing

Manuel Ramos


The work of the filmmaker Wang Bing gives us the chance to re-think the grounds from where to relate documentary cinema and the political. In this paper I explore the singular (dis)articulation of social function and aesthetics in films such as Tie Xi Qu, West of the Tracks (2003) or The Man with no Name (2010). I understand that his cinema operates a contradictory double movement; a movement that both confirms and corrodes the sociological capacities of the documentary. On the one hand Wang Bing’s images perform à la lettre the functions conventionally used to define the capacities of documentary cinema: they document what is about to disappear and they make visible the invisible, they give voice to the voiceless. Wang Bing employs strategies belonging to the observational documentaries to carry out these sociological functions. However the singular use Wang Bing makes of these observational strategies does not produce or confirm a sociological evidence (the invisibility of the invisible, the voicelessness of the voiceless). Very differently, I argue that his work oxidates the sociological economy of representation; an economy that has ossified the potential of documentary cinema to intervene in the world. In Wang Bing’s cinema the long takes are just too long, the travelling shot are too endless, the handheld camera too vacillating, the natural lightning too out of this world. His images show something else than the visibility of what is visible; they visualize their own dysfunction, the erosion of their capacity to observe and document. Drawing from the work of Jacques Rancière, I argue that the cinema of Wang Bing ultimately shows that the political capacity of the documentary image entails today the oxidation of its sociological functions.


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