Though I am Gone (China, 2006)

At the start of his documentary Though I Am Gone, Hu Jie asks his interviewing subject, Mr. Wang Jungyao, whether it was painful to photograph the body of his wife so soon after her death. Wang responds: “Yes, but I was determined to record the truth of history.” Those are his first spoken words in the film, words that have aptly defined his life for the last 40 years. Now, at the age of 85, Wang Jungyao is ready to recount the truth he’s so meticulously recorded over the years – the story of his wife, Bian Zhongyun, a teacher and arguably the first of many victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In the early to mid-1960s, Chairman Mao had begun to lose favor in the upper echelons of the Communist party, caused primarily by the failure of the “Great Leap Forward,” a rushed attempt to industrialize the country. Furthermore, the Sino-Soviet split was escalating, while more and more Communist countries were going the way of “revisionism,” abandoning the “pure” tenets of Marxism-Leninism. In fact, China’s most loyal (and perhaps only) ally at the time was, of all places, the tiny People’s Republic of Albania. Thus, growing ever more fearful of his position after the example of Khrushchev (who was overthrown in 1964), Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to consolidate his control over the party and restore the nation to a pure Maoist ideology. What followed was a sweeping, ideologically fueled frenzy driven primarily by the youth that sought to eliminate all elements of dissent. Teachers, as traditional figures of authority, were particularly targeted by their students, beaten, killed, and humiliated en-masse.

Bian Zhongyun, the vice-principle of a prestigious women’s middle school in Beijing, was perhaps the first educator to suffer the consequences of the violent tendencies that overcame the nation’s youth in those days. On August 5th, 1966, after several signs and portents of escalating violence, Bian was beaten to death by her students with nail-spiked clubs, forced into a meaningless confession of guilt, and then thrown in the trash cart despite her fatal injuries. When she was finally taken into the hospital by one of her more compassionate colleagues, it was too late for her. She died shortly thereafter, the first of over 1700 teachers that would suffer the same fate in the days to come.

Shot with a mix of black-and-white and color, Though I Am Gone adopts a more-or-less conventional documentary structure, wherein much of the running time features interviewees narrating the story in front of the camera, intercut with old photographs and archival footage from the time. While the film presents evidence from different sources, thus cementing the objectivity of the story (insofar as true objectivity is ever possible), it is Wang Jungyao’s subjective experience of his wife’s death that really stands out. He did not witness the murder first-hand – and even if he had, there would be nothing he could do. The justice system was broken, and the nation swept in paranoia. With no recourse for retribution, Wang’s only choice was to embark on a 40-year long journey to record and preserve the truth to the best of his ability.

And that he does. The most shocking scene of the film comes when Mr. Wang leads the camera to a back room where he reveals a suitcase with all his wife’s things at the moment of her death. Blood-stained gauzes from her mouth, a weathered silk dress with writing on the back, her socks, even her underwear, still stained with excrement and urine – Wang has kept it all intact. Drawing comparisons with Christian figures (by which he’s been fascinated all his life), he sees this as his cross to bear. To hold out the truth until such time that the entire world can appreciate it and learn from it.

Though I Am Gone is both a narrative of history, and of the manner in which we remember it. The Chinese government post-Mao has publicly condemned the revolution, yet many of its causes and consequence are still a factor the country’s modern existence. Even today, open discussion of the Cultural Revolution is severely limited by the government, much like the more recent Tiananmen square massacre, which, at the time of this writing, enters in its 30-year anniversary. In the documentary, Mr. Wang hopes that one day there will be a Cultural Revolution museum that displays the entire truth, not just convenient portions of it. Because he knows that those who don’t learn from history, are bound to repeat it.

Though I Am Gone is available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.

John Atom