The case is against the company Fake. …When I came out [of detention], I asked: “What is the economic problem?” They said: “This has nothing to do with you, it’s about Fake Company.” But the day before I was released they asked me to sign that Fake Company is actually controlled by me. It’s a fake case. It’s a fake case about Fake Company. But the Fake Company is a real company. The fake case is a real case, but it’s fake, it’s fabricated.
–Ai Weiwei in Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case
When you live as surreal an existence as the world-renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei does these days, you would be well-served by having a fierce intelligence, profound self-knowledge, masterly control of emotions like rage and grief (although this suppression can be accompanied by insomnia and narcolepsy, by turns). Arguably the most vital thing of all would be the facile ability to find a good amount of mirth in the absurdity of it all by regularly taking the piss out of a sorry situation – and never being very sorry about it at all.
When you are as brave and have as much influence as the 56 year-old Weiwei, then the duty to do all you can to push back in the face of daily human rights abuses visited upon you and a great majority of your fellow citizens becomes your mission. Weiwei has adopted a family legacy of rebellion from his parents, both of whom were outspoken intellectuals and therefore de facto dissidents and enemies of the state in the time of Chairman Mao.
Weiwei’s secret arrest on 23 April 2011 by Chinese authorities did not come with any charges attached. He was detained – also secretly – for 81 days at the Beijing Capital International Airport on his way to board a flight to Hong Kong. (1) He was watched 24 hours a day by two police officers housed in the small cell with him where he sat, read, slept, ate, defecated and showered for ten weeks in solitary confinement. (2) Not even his family could reach him. He tells Andreas Johnsen, the Danish director of Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case:
Now 60 years in power and still act like an underground party. You are a big party with 80 million members. It’s so big! 80 million members! Why you make it like a secret society? … Eight hours … Ten hours after I arrived – the first person comes into this room to start the interrogation. I asked: “Why am I here?” He said they were holding me for subversion of the state power. Because of my blog writings and my Internet activities. They are so afraid of this Jasmine Revolution. They say I am very influential and somehow they think I am subversive to the state power. They are really from a very old time of the so-called Red Army. They have no sense of right or wrong. They don’t take any moral stands. Everything is about taking orders. … There’s no procedure of anything. They don’t show you who they are. They never show you any papers. They clearly tell you: “You cannot have a lawyer. You cannot call your family. For six months.” That’s kidnapping! It is kidnapping. It’s kidnapping by state.
Weiwei’s probation officially ended on 21 June 2012 on charges of tax evasion, his bail of nearly $1.5 million posted with voluntary cash donations that flooded into Fake Company. However, to this day, the authorities, with no explanation, are still withholding his passport, making him unable to legally leave China. And while he lives quite comfortably, better than most residents of Beijing, he is surveilled by police around the clock and must check in daily with a probation officer. He remains charged with uploading pornography, specifically a photograph he calls “One Tiger, Eight Breasts” where he poses nude seated on a stool surrounded by four young women, also in the nude. Everyone in the photo is smiling or laughing. According to Weiwei, the photo was taken in his studio “just for fun” and only became a crime when it was uploaded to the Internet. Any public displays or representations of nudity are considered to be pornographic in China. So, naturally, Weiwei was happy to oblige Johnsen when the filmmaker asked the artist to realise his idea for the film’s poster – a photo of the artist standing stark naked in the middle of Tiananmen Square with a police officer looking on.
During the four years the filmmaker went back and forth from Denmark to China to clandestinely film and stay with Weiwei, he introduced the artist to Niklas Engstrøm, one of the programmers at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. When Engstrøm visited Weiwei in his studio in Beijing this past March, the festival’s curatorial team was already working with the overarching concept for the entire program: “Everything is under control.” Engstrøm told me: “I said to him that his take on this idea would be extremely interesting considering the society in which he lives, the conditions he himself has experienced and the fight he has put up against the whole Chinese system of control. Immediately he found the idea intriguing, and after less than five minutes, he had accepted the idea of curating a program for us with full creative freedom. No censoring needed here! I think he has handled that freedom admirably.” It is admirable, as well, that a festival of CPH:DOX’s calibre is able to offer a festival audience a chance to see some of world cinema’s greatest works in this context.
Ai Weiwei’s curation consisted of ten films that each represent, in their own way, epic episodes of surreality – across comedy, satire, lunacy, absurdity, not a small amount of tragedy, and a strong dose of grandeur, in some cases – illustrating systems of power completely in / out of control. This experience is examined by filmmakers Caveh Zahedi, Leni Riefenstahl, Esfir Shub, Michelangelo Antonioni, Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme, Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Moore, Simon Klose and Emir Kusturica, a hardy and fecund group of cinematic storytellers whose purview on populations of people living under some kind of regime of oppression – or coping with the end of one – is ever expansive, the timelessness of some of these works downright uncanny. Some of these directors got into trouble, wittingly or unwittingly, unless they worked within the repressive regime in which they found themselves. Most, however, stayed fast and true to their creative vision only to find out afterwards they had made work that pissed governments off and, thusly, their films were banned from being shown. Some tapped into the Zeitgeist so powerfully and artfully, no one could give anything but praise – although it did frighten some. And then there are the very purposeful shenanigans of more recent directors like Moore and Zahedi to push things so over the limit one is forced to admire their moxie and sheer audacity, grateful that someone is putting themself out there and saying what needs to be said, no matter the problematic issues in terms of cohesive filmmaking in such cases.
Parallel to his career as an artist, Weiwei has also directed and produced over 20 documentaries, helping to pave the way for a new generation of critical voices in China. In his curation, there is a sense of Weiwei showing reverence for the wisdom, foresight and point of view of the works of the directors whose films he has chosen, films that have certainly had a huge impact on his world view, helping to, perhaps, enhance his own convictions about his current personal circumstances.
The two works by female directors present a fascinating and infuriating admixture of groundbreaking directorial accomplishment and accusations of creating purely propagandistic cinema, resulting in their work being forever compromised in the eyes of most film historians. The earliest of these, Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) pieces together a chronology of Russia from 1913 to 1917 using archival news footage. The repurposed images give a comprehensive – and officially acceptable – overview of society at the time. Of the film, Weiwei states, “The objective approach of the documentary results in beautiful imagery, picturing joy and humour.” It’s hard to tell here if he’s being ironic.
Shub’s main job as an editor was to cut and retitle foreign films, shaping them into something “suitable” for screening to Soviet audiences. She became adept at finding and editing found footage salvaged from the massive film archives at the time, adding new material especially shot for the purpose of constructing a trilogy of films, the first of them being Fall of the Romanov. A bit less than thirty years later in the time following WWII, Shub’s life (and also that of filmmaker, Dziga Vertov) was in great danger with the revival of the virulent Russian antisemitism and Jews, particularly high-profile ones, became targets. But Shub kept her head down and worked within the confines of this milieu to be deemed a dutiful commentator on the Stalinist state, surviving by producing work that satisfied the political needs of the moment. (3)
The more (in)famous German Leni Riefenstahl, known as “Hitler’s filmmaker” (and also his mistress, although she vehemently denied that until the day she died) is represented in Weiwei’s program with her magnificent cinematic achievement Olympia (1938), a film renowned for its sophisticated cinematography put to use as Nazi propaganda. Weiwei notes that her aesthetical language “continues to be used today for propaganda purposes by countries with dictatorial structures such as China or Russia. One example is Beijing’s Olympic Games in 2008, which are reminiscent of the Games featured in the film.” (One, of course, thinks of films from Kim Jong-il’s North Korea and Ceaușescu’s Romania, as well.) Riefenstahl begins her opus with an incredibly sensuous touch, celebrating in elegiac tones the human physique in all its beauty against the grandeur of ancient Greece. And then, at precisely minute sixteen, comes the shock – and somehow it is still a shock – of the Nazi salute en masse at the stadium in Berlin when the swastika flag of the Third Reich is hoisted on high and Herr Hitler takes his box seat to watch the opening ceremony spectacle at the XI Olympiad. On Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday, critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine on the subject of her films as classic works, and not simply propaganda. He argues that, “The issues her films and her career raise are complex and they are important, and her vilifiers tend to reduce the argument to one of a director’s complicity in atrocity or her criminal ignorance. …[But] by any disinterested standard, Triumph of the Will and Olympia are towering artistic achievements.” (4)
Since there isn’t the opportunity, nor the expertise, to review pretty much a huge swath of the history of 20th and 21st century cinema here, the remaining films can be surveyed in the context of the times in which they were made and the upheavals the world was – and still is – experiencing politically, culturally and socially. As mentioned already, the foresight displayed through the auspices of a camera lens is, many times, prescient. These master filmmakers creatively tap into the pulse of the times in which they lived and made work. In the case of these next four films, the decade was 1963 – 73.
To Americans, of which I am one, the year 1963 will forever be engraved in collective memory as the year President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas, with his brother Robert’s and Martin Luther King Jr’s murders to follow shortly thereafter in Los Angeles and Memphis, respectively. Meanwhile, in what felt worlds away, the previous year in France, Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme were filming what Weiwei calls “an early social study” and “a form of modern poetry”. Le Joli Mai was filmed during May 1962, an omnibus city portrait starring countless Parisians. Filmed just after the March ceasefire between France and Algeria, Marker and Lhomme document the City of Light during a turning point in French history. This would be the first time since ‘39 that France was not involved in any war. Marker, as intrepid journalist, asks random people (and some animals) about their views on society and their perceived place within it. It is filled with a sort of naïve hope and wary optimism of the country’s chances for a future of enduring peace and prosperity.
The following year, Stanley Kubrick unveiled his Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. For those who know this most beloved work, there is little surprise to find it in a film selection by Ai Weiwei. One would be hard-pressed to find, even 50 years on, a script satirising the nuclear scare between the US and Russia as searing, derisive, disconcerting and darkly humorous as this one. As well as setting off a chain of assassinations of powerful civil rights leaders and growing violence in America, the early 1960s saw the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Bay of Pigs invasion in Castro’s Cuba. What else should one do in those times except make a comedy? To quote General Jack D. Ripper: “ I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
In 1966, director Andrei Tarkovsky stepped back into medieval times with Andrei Rublev, a portrait of the idealistic artist in a bleak and brutally repressive Russia. Not surprisingly, “the film was immediately suppressed by the Soviets deeming it too experimental, too frightening, too violent, and too politically complicated to be released officially.” (5) Its appeal to the Chinese artist can be felt in the meditative quality of one man’s search for spiritual and artistic light in a very dark place. Indeed, Rublev is a chronicler of medieval life through his religious art in a world where people of every class were just generally frightened out of their wits. Tarkovsky stays grounded in the profane and sensuous world with his main protagonist, vulnerable to all the weaknesses that any human being possesses, yearning for free expression and meaningful connection. It’s long and melancholic – but it’s beautiful and viewing the film on 35mm leaves no doubt as to the reason for its consistent inclusion in “best films of all time” polls.
And then there is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Cina (1972). The Italian director was invited to make the documentary, the first time a western filmmaker had been asked to do so, in the belief by the Chinese Communist government that he was an ally of the regime. Although the crew was restricted in terms of where they could go, the result is an epic and beautifully cinematic three and a half hour film divided into three parts. But after viewing the finished film, the Chinese government did not approve, thinking itself cast in an “incorrect light” and the director was summarily charged with being anti-Chinese and a counter-revolutionary. So this film, too, was shelved. Watching it now, it appears tame, its only error, it might be supposed, is that it lingers on the harsher realities of life in rural China a little too much? It had its national premiere at Beijing’s Cinema Institute 30 years later.
Seemingly three to five decades is the appropriate time allotted for something deemed counter-revolutionary at its unveiling to becoming a grand cinema classic, restored and released to great fanfare for cinephiles the world over at an important film institution or festival.
From 1972, Weiwei as well, fast forwards a few decades and chooses another group of films starting with Emir Kusturica’s brilliant tragi-comedy, Underground (1995) about the unravelling of Yugoslavia told through the story of two friends. Michael Moore weighs in on the shenanigans of the US Congress and America’s health insurance industry scandals in 2007’s Sicko. In The Sheik and I (2012), Caveh Zahedi fucks around in the United Arab Emirates and mires himself in comedic entanglements with the (always absent) Sheik of Sharjah. Making this piece of absurdist hilarity, originally a commissioned piece by the curators of the Bienniel there, turned out to have extremely serious consequences both professionally and personally for Zahedi. The Sheik of Sharjah signed a piece of paper banning the film from ever being shown, not only in the UAE, but in the entire world. Zahedi promptly hired a freedom of speech lawyer to get this universal ban lifted. However, upon its festival release in the US, Zahedi was chastised in a private letter by an influential programmer for irresponsible filmmaking, strongly encouraging the director not to release the film. Angrily, Zahedi published the ensuing unfriendly correspondence, thus giving his film perhaps way more attention than it would have garnered otherwise.
From Sweden, there is TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard (2013), Simon Klose’s documentary about three hapless young computer hackers running the largest file-sharing server in the world. The three are brought to trial in their home country at the behest of the gigantic film industry in Hollywood for illegal downloading. The heroes of this story lose big with a guilty verdict accompanied by a multi-million dollar fine, arrest and a stint in prison. The proceedings turn from a perceived joke to something very serious, indeed, particularly when it is revealed that the judge and prosecution team’s personal business interests have ties to an institute that benefits financially from data protection research.
As valuable as these films are to talk about in-depth, it would take a whole other article. So I will end with Moore’s Sicko, a film that holds up exceedingly well upon re-viewing. With the right blend of righteous wrath, snide humour, and heat-seeking intelligence, it is a film for the People, clearly showcasing a corrupt American government that is so hubristically renegade, it does not do much to hide its dirty dealings – coming back full circle to the similar ways things are going for Ai Weiwei in China these days.
Contained within Moore’s film, there is a most rousing sound bite courtesy of Mr Tony Benn, a retired UK Labour Party politician and MP for over 50 years. What he says could be considered the cri de coeur of most of the works in Weiwei’s selection, in one way or another:
I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world. Far more revolutionary than socialist ideas, or anybody else’s idea. …See, I think there are two ways in which people are controlled. First of all, frighten people, and secondly, demoralise them. An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern. …The top 1% of the world’s population own 80% of the world’s wealth. It’s incredible that people put up with it, but they’re poor, they’re demoralised, they’re frightened. And therefore, they think perhaps the safest thing to do is to take orders and hope for the best.
Ai Weiwei doesn’t believe that’s the ticket. In an interview with a foreign journalist in Johnsen’s film, he is asked why he constantly puts himself in such jeopardy with the authorities and he responds: “I think if I don’t show my voice and don’t act as I’ve always believed, then I think I am dead already. Even if I have a living form, I will see myself as a dead person. So this kind of argument and this kind of expression is not only necessary for artists, but for any human being. To show they’re alive, they have to speak out – especially to the kind of danger that can affect everybody, which can put so many people in silence. So many generations in sorrow and in silence.”
Curated by Ai Weiwei program at CPH:DOX
7–17 November 2013
Festival website: http://cphdox.dk/en
- Paul Carey-Kent, “The Story of Ai Weiwei’s Arrest In His Own Words”, The Art Newspaper, 22 May 2013.
- Weiwei, shortly upon his release, started making artwork in remembrance of his detainment, including six life-sized dioramas of scenes of his imprisonment, and a music video called Dumbass.
- Jeremy Murray-Brown, “Esfir Il’Inishna Shub”, Jewish Women’s Archive
- Richard Corliss, “That Old Feeling: Leni’s Triumph”, Time Magazine, 22 August 2002
- From the liner notes in The Criterion Collection DVD edition of Andrei Rublev.