A Programmer's Chronicles 20
by Gertjan Zuilhof
In Hong Kong, I sat watching a piece from Wang Bing's Crude Oil again. A piece that was pretty much the length of a normal feature. It was no more than fragment, because the film/installation (more on the subject of the slash later) lasts 14 hours. Twice seven hours in order to fill two exhibition days completely with images that do not repeat. It certainly is no more than a fragment if you think that the work was originally planned to last 70 hours. It was conceived for exhibition during a festival lasting 10 days, with a seven-hour part each day. But the production turned out to be more difficult than thought and the maker increasingly felt the need to intervene in the material.
The new work by Wang Bing makes it possible for the viewer to follow a complete and heavy working day by the labourers on an oil installation in a remote region.
Crude Oil was specially made for the exhibition New Dragon Inns that I put together for the 2008 International Film Festival Rotterdam. When I spoke to Wang Bing in 2007 in Beijing, he had two proposals. The final Crude Oil was the second idea and at first looked too expensive and too complex. For the first plan, he wanted to follow a man who lives alone somewhere outside the city surviving entirely on his own home-grown vegetables. For a specific period he would just record everything continuously with the camera. He didn’t want to edit the final result and an installation formed seem to be the best way to present this flow of images. It struck me as an appealing and feasible plan, but when there was some prospect of financial support from the Hubert Bals Farms, the film maker resolutely decided to undertake the difficult journey to remote oil wells.
In the film-festival catalogues of Rotterdam and Hong Kong, it says that Wang Bing was filming on a plateau in the Gobi desert, but in reality he had to move to a different mountainous region about 500 kilometres away, a journey on unmade snow-covered roads. The terrain that now plays the leading role in the film is in the province of Qing Hui, a similar landscape to that of the neighbouring province of Tibet (that of course is not regarded by everyone as a province). A high, empty, rough, windy and desolate landscape. Yes, making films can still be adventurous. The film maker found that out at first hand. He started to have altitude sickness at the high oil installation. It was so severe that the had to stop shooting prematurely while the crew continued to film the rest of the material. When he was a guest in Rotterdam, the committed film maker had still not entirely recovered, but he did not seem to regret his adventure.
When it became clear to me that the film/installation was not going to last 70 but only 14 hours, I suggested to the maker showing the film in the cinema as well as in the exhibition. After all, a film lasting 14 hours is not much longer than the recent film by Lav Diaz, that we also offered in full to audiences. But Wang Bing wasn’t interested. For him, it remained a work intended for an installation and screening in the cinema would make other demands. Subtitling. Editing. Sound editing. In the end, as a festival programmer you always have to respect the wishes of the film maker (or not screen the work – a programmer does have his own final cut, even though that was impossible in this case), but I tried anyway again by suggesting that subtitling the material might help the audience. Of course there is no dialogue in large sections of Crude Oil, because people are working with large and noisy machines, but there must be a couple of hours of dialogue, for instance of men hanging around in the canteen watching television. Enough to make translation expensive and time-consuming, so it was decided to stick to presentation as an installation.
In Rotterdam, the installation was in the former Fotomuseum in the context of an exhibition with several installations. It was an installation because it said it was, because you could argue that screening in the dark auditorium with several easy chairs is very much like a film screening.
In Hong Kong, the presentation was a little closer to a film screening. There was no context here, the work was screened in a television studio that was basically very suitable, far away from festival or museum The opportunity to walk in and out at random moments only existed in theory. In the hall about 30 folding chairs (of which half were occupied when I was there) were lined up and outside the hall there was nothing to do. The idea was obviously that the whole work should be seen.
That was not a punishment (apart from spending 14 hours on folding chairs maybe) because the work includes beautiful moments. For instance the slow breaking of dawn above the rocky landscape while the men had already been at work for hours is an almost breathtaking spectacle.
The question of whether Crude Oil by Wang Bing is an installation or a film screening is basically trivial. It is an important and grand work and the label is not that relevant. What is relevant is how an exhausting work like this can best be presented. And how can it live on. Is there any point in releasing a DVD? And will that be subtitled? And commentary by the maker? Now it is an emphatically uncommented work. That sounds fairly inane, but I heard the maker talking about working conditions and that was fascinating. Another issue: should you prescribe the quality of the chairs with work like this? And who can think up more important and unimportant questions. Because even in the case of a grand work, the details are relevant. Not that I’m arguing in favour of popcorn, but art and comfort do not need to be mutually exclusive.