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A Journal of Crude Oil (2008)
"Caiyou riji" (original title)

 -  Documentary  -  June 2009 (USA)
6.5
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Ratings: 6.5/10 from 26 users  
Reviews: 1 user | 2 critic

Documents a workday at a remote Chinese oil field, from a stolen nap in a break room to the massive drills plunging into the earth.

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Documents a workday at a remote Chinese oil field, from a stolen nap in a break room to the massive drills plunging into the earth.

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June 2009 (USA)  »

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A Journal of Crude Oil  »

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Director Bing Wang originally planned a 70-hour film, with ten hours to be shot every day over a period of one week. It was reduced to 14 hours after Wang was forced to leave the location due to altitude sickness, leaving his crew to complete the film. See more »

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Beyond Cinema: Wang Bing's Crude Oil
2 March 2012 | by (somewhere) – See all my reviews

Not least because of rarely scheduled appearances, there is good reason why Wang Bing's Crude Oil has generated extremely little writing on it, online or elsewhere. It almost goes without saying that much commentary offered about it will be revelatory of the different kinds of mental strategies employed to overcome the total experience of it, rather than recording one's surrender to it. Its 14 hour length alone unequivocally demands no less than that, and explicitly signals Wang's intention for the project as documentary installation art — strictly encountered in a gallery or dedicated space — rather than via conventional film, video or digital monitor presentations, which fail to transcend limitations of the passive consumer experience. Outside the safety of those largely capitalist-designated parameters, his presentation is devised to provide a devastatingly intimate entrée into the conditions of human working life (here, at a remote oil rig in China's Gobi Desert), while implicitly asking: what does it mean to watch images not designed for hedonic consumption?

My experience of Crude Oil took place at the Brooklyn media space Light Industry, during a 2009 limited five-day run. It was a rather overwhelming encounter with Wang's work to say the least, seeing separate presentations of his (then) newest work Coal Money, and his panoramic 9-hour masterpiece, West of the Tracks. My three successive daily visits had a life-changing impact akin to being on a retreat; the factory loft was a temporary space, and with a small heating unit among the few chairs, benches and floor mats that didn't do much to dispel a November chill, it was far from producing a passive experience. Having missed the first two hours, remaining for the rest was ordeal enough in itself (even split over two days and 6-hour sessions), demanding determination and confidence in Wang's enterprise, mostly made possible by his ethical sensibility.

To describe the overall impact, even separating out these extra conditions, is difficult because Wang's approach is so simple and yet uncompromising in itself. The individual shots are massive in length, important for establishing one as visitor (not just viewer), and his camera angles are largely from real or potential perspectives of his subjects, who remain unselfconscious throughout, hence effectively negating any sense of voyeurism. The recording sound was intentionally set at a naturalistic level, and scenes where the workers spend time indoors in the bare recreational living room register effectively. But when we're moved outside to the rig platform itself, with the relentlessly active workers, the deafening maelstrom of machinery sound engulfs one, and for an indefinite amount of time.

A key scene indicative of Wang's simple yet powerful sound design: two workers share a smoke break well away from the rig, trying to relax in the sun and the immense desert surrounding them. When we follow alongside as they return to work, the faint sounds of the machinery gradually grow louder until we begin to tighten up, thinking we've assessed the limit and preparing to hunker down for the duration of the shot, but the sonic assault continues, becoming truly devastating. As one begins to numb in order to accommodate, even trying to take refuge in movement by walking around the gallery to avoid becoming pinned down by the roar, the realization of Wang's intentions becomes more piercing — and one probably elusive to those who think a more conventional access (e.g., a bootleg DVD trip modulated with remote control) can provide the same result, while fast-forwarding beyond the meaning which can only come through a direct head-on engagement with Wang's setup.

The challenges which were implicit in one's original intention to bear witness become activated from moment to moment in multi-fold; many realizations arise, and not merely of one's discomfort as potentially one of many Western subjects who endlessly consume vast amounts of oil and commodities, at a great distance from their source. Wang confronts us existentially, forcing us to relinquish our comfort zones as the prerequisite for a further inquiry into reality of work, how our political views are incomplete and even suspect if they do not encompass a direct witness of what work itself actually means to us — what is its true cost, not just economically for those who benefit the most from the labors of others, but the emotional, psychological and the extreme physical cost for those whose labor is exploited. This is the direct head-on view of what such exploitation looks like — moment by grueling or boring moment (even the workers' down-time doesn't exactly feel like relief) — in the course of one day, a day like many other endless days for them. The longue durée of this exposure, in which our witness becomes alternately more embarrassing, more frustrating, more numbing, more claustrophobic, the longer we submit to it — ultimately provides us with an unparalleled ethical reckoning well beyond our normally posited limits of engagement or resistance.

Questions around how much mediation occurs in the filmmaking process itself eventually disappear, as one becomes simultaneously swallowed up by time, as well as a product of it, and through actual witness even its accomplice. Wang has commented on the difficulty of capturing or attaining "truth" in his art — although in this work, perhaps he may have realized that "truth" becomes transparent to context, to what is taking place… simultaneously on-screen and off, within our experience… in the encounter arising between the meaning-potentials discerned and our willingness to make ourselves available for their discovery to change our life.

With Crude Oil, Wang Bing has not turned out something anyone could be comfortable with, clearly demonstrating that film buffs need not apply, and reminding that Kafka once said we should only read the books that wound us... What do you see? How do you see?


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