Each year here in Venice a “film sorpresa” (literally a surprise film) is screened in competition. Last time around Herzog’s bizarre and interesting My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? was the film in question, so journalists awaited the reveal of this year’s surprise film with palpable excitement and anticipation. And many were audibly disappointed – some got up and left the Sala Darsena altogether – when the credits rolled and Wang Bing’s The Ditch was unveiled.

It was slightly unfair treatment for the Chinese feature – the fifth I’ve seen so far at this festival (and the only “serious” one) – perhaps the result of a hope that a director with a bigger name would present us with an unanticipated major work. But Bing Wang is in fact an award winning director, and a big name, in the field of documentary film making

The Ditch represents his maiden work as a maker of fiction.

Though one could hardly tell it was fiction, with the film utilising a high-end documentary aesthetic. Which is to say, it doesn’t look cheap, with lots of shaky handheld cameras. It is cinematic and classy, like a prestigious and artful documentary film. There is no music and a very realist use of sound design. It all feels authentic. Indeed, I suspect the only reason he made The Ditch as a work of fiction at all is due to the fact the reality is now impossible to film.

Set in the Gobi Desert in the winter of 1960, the film looks at the plight of (and is dedicated to) those sent to manual labour camps for “re-education” by the Maoist regime, on the grounds that they were “rightists”. What follows is basically plotless. We simply observe the day to day strife of these men, who contend with physical exhaustion, extreme cold and starvation. We learn how many of the prisoners were revolutionaries themselves – “I’ve been a party member since 1938!” exclaims one – whilst some have been imprisoned over semantics: with a professor saying he was detained for saying the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” was “too narrow” and suggesting it be replaced by “dictatorship of the people”.

Life in the ditch itself (a trench in the desert, covered with a bamboo roof) is pretty hard going. A few journalists walked out in disgust during one scene, in which whilst one prisoner is vomiting, another is picking through it and scavenging the regurgitated beans. Death is matter-of-fact and no one bats an eye when prisoner after prisoner succumbs to one of the many hardships on offer. We are told that some men cannibalise the dead, sneaking off to the unmarked graves at night, shovel in hand. Others steal the clothes of the fallen to trade for rations. We also overhear tearful transcriptions of letters home to loved ones.

It’s attractively made, faithfully accurate to the historical facts (from what I can tell) and the subject is certainly interesting. However, it only held my attention for about the first hour and after that it became immensely wearisome.

I was going to say that it should be have been shorter, but, on reflection, I think it needs to be as long as it is in order to make you understand the day-to-day nature of the hardship and the passing of time, not to mention understand the scale of the loss of life incurred.

I think when The Ditch started to annoy me (to put it politely) was during the latter half of the film, when a wife turns up at the camp to find her husband has died a few days prior to her visit. It is a necessary part of the human story: a character turns up without the same jaded indifference to death and injects the film with more feeling – also providing a connection to life outside the camp. But the problem for me was the amount of screen time afforded for her inconsolable wailing. I understood her pain in her first scene, where she hears the grim news. I didn’t need to see another eight scenes of her grief play out. It comes to stop seeming tragic and just becomes tiring and uncomfortable after a while. But maybe that’s just life in a Chinese manual re-education camp for you.

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This article was first posted on September 6, 2010