‘Better not to talk about, it’s so painful,’ says one Ta’ang woman at one point in Wang Bing’s most recent documentary about the Ta’ang ethnic group, local to a border zone between the Kokang region in northeastern Myanmar and Yunnan province in southwestern China. But that is exactly what Wang and his camera become witness to when he spends days-nights at several formal and informal refugee camps along the Myanmar-China border, where the Ta’ang have gathered: the speaking and listening of Ta’ang experiences of forced migration, in their own words and language, following the outbreak of armed conflict in Kokang. The aforementioned conflict broke out in February 2015 in northeastern Myanmar (as the film’s introductory caption details) and continues intermittently to the present time, connected to the ongoing civil war between government forces and more than a dozen ethnic minority militias, among them the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). And while some of the women and children who appear in the film have since returned to their homes in Kokang (as the concluding caption states), the displacement of Ta’ang families as well as several other ethnic minority groups also continues.
Anyone familiar with Wang’s films knows that duration is the key to unlocking the modus operandi of the unfolding and arrangement of scenes (apart from chronology) that make up Ta’ang. Here, he captures different stages of evacuation and thus different layers and perspectives of the violence and the migration, namely, those in the camps and those newly displaced and therefore in a deeper state of uncertainty and anxiety about who/what has been left behind and what is before them. In the course of a day-into-evening at the refugee camp in Maidihe, Chinese flags flutter in the background in the camp while men construct makeshift tents in the midst of strong winds, women take care of the children, and kids scoop rice with their hands or bowls from a bag when not running around or helping adults settle into their temporary dwellings. Nighttime at the Dayingpan tea factory refugee camp, in Nansan, reveals a population as extensive as in Maidihe but the families are more settled, living quarters fully established and more demarcated, and cell phone use is possible. In contrast, at Chaheba, closer along the Myanmar-China border and therefore also closer to the conflict because explosions can be heard intermittently, families appear to have just arrived from Kokang: they sit, wait, and discuss options along a dirt path that winds through sloping hills, on the move and seeking shelter for the night but uncertain what exactly to do or where to go. Wang eventually follows a group of women and girls, some of whom carry babies on their backs, in search of shelter before it gets dark. They chance upon a wooden structure with a roof, off the road, and proceed to set up for the night. The film’s last shot is of the wooden shack from a distance, as explosions continue to echo through the hills.
Wang’s films are elaborations of an empathic cinematic practice: in presenting and observing people who would generally be understood simply and reductively as victims and objects of pity, he and his camera, in empathic collaboration with the film’s social actors, demand that they be looked at — really looked at — as human beings. In Ta’ang, women and children look back with perhaps the steadiest gazes ever conjured by social actors in all of Wang’s films, thereby making accountable the spectator’s looking. Yet, in truth, it is the act of listening within looking — or a spectatorship of listening — that, with the help of several formal choices and recurring scenes/imagery, becomes the crux of witnessing within the film and outside of it.
Crucial to his empathic cinematic practice, Wang’s camera is in the thick of things, shoulder to shoulder with or walking alongside his social actors as they go about their lives, which enables him to create one of the two most striking and memorable elements in the film. The first element is the soundscape. Wang, seemingly, naturally gravitates towards children, who look nonchalantly back at the camera, out of curiosity and not to provoke pity. More interestingly, however, is that even when not on-screen, the camera picks up the children’s voices (alongside numerous other voices and sounds) from all around the camera, thereby providing a wall-to-wall, immersive experience of being in the camps. In fact, in opposition to the statement above that begins this review is the following: ‘The more people, the more chatter,’ says one woman, while another woman near her adds, ‘Like bubbling water.’ Registering this ‘bubbling water’ in the camps and elsewhere leads to one of the most dynamic soundscapes in Wang’s filmography: constant, teeming chatter to the left and right of, and before and behind, the camera, of life inexorable, particularly coming from off-screen space and often going unsubtitled, so that the film is ever reminding the spectator that there are many other aspects of this world and the Ta’ang that the camera is not exactly showing. Such is one important aspect of Wang’s empathic documentary filmmaking: expansive, but never totalising.
The film’s other striking and memorable element is borne from a detail that occurs again and again, to the point that it had to have been a conscious decision on Wang’s part, if not related to the film’s limited technical means/circumstances. In any given shot, more often than not, the person speaking is off-screen; if not, then the person speaking is shrouded in darkness, sometimes identifiable only by his/her silhouette. The result is seductive and hypnotic on a visual level while valuable on an aural level, as part of building an oral history of the Ta’ang. The film’s centerpiece in this regard and in terms of the running time is the thirty-minute sequence of conversations that take place around a campfire, divided only by fade-outs. Wang’s camera is perched around the campfire, surrounded by a group of Ta’ang men and women (in some instances with children present) who speak of their experiences during the evacuation; of family members left behind, separated from, or who may have joined the rebels (i.e. TNLA); of the trauma of witnessing or hearing about violence (a man relates the case of an eighty-year-old ethnic Chinese beaten to death; a woman describes, ‘It was Burmese killing Burmese’); and the distress of being away from their land. Another time, it is candlelight that illuminates Wang’s witnessing of a conversation between some women, while the soundtrack picks up voices from off-screen here and there and other sounds.
One could interpret these elements, both relating to sound, in a number of ways. But perhaps above all, they indicate simultaneously the uprootedness of present lives and of life inexorable for the Ta’ang, neither victimised nor heroicised…just humanised and recognised.
Ta’ang is available on DVD as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.