SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
Exposing the other side of China’s emerging power
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
The People’s Republic of China has been in our news a lot these past months, especially on the business pages. It’s not because we’re particularly interested in the Chinese people. Rather, the focus has been on Chinese investment in our flagging economies, notably the long-term strategic designs of resource-hungry Chinese state corporations which some welcome as a boon to Canada’s high-carbon energy sector. Ironies abound. There are those “conservatives” who fiercely objected to the creation of Petro-Canada as a limited state instrument in the Canadian national interest but now seem to think that entities wholly owned and controlled by a corrupt Communist Party dictatorship are just fine as capitalist partners. Go figure. Money and markets trump concerns about democracy and human rights, our hollow “principled” rhetoric notwithstanding.
Fortunately there are courageous individuals in China putting themselves at risk to defend and express the values we claim to care about. Their stories as told in two compelling new documentaries are a source of inspiration revealing another side of China from that of the promoters, paymasters and propagandists.
Writer-director Alison Klayman’s absorbing first feature Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (http://www.aiweiweineversorry.com/) — winner of a Sundance festival special jury award — profiles China’s most famous, and notorious, contemporary artist. After moving to China in 2006 to pursue journalism she made a video of one of his photographic exhibitions. They met in December 2008 and she decided to document his celebrated and increasingly controversial career. He had been involved with the design of the striking “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics but was an outspoken critic of how the Chinese state used the games as a party propaganda tool shoving aside citizens’ concerns. He was also in the forefront of protests over state failures in regard to the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which more than 70,000 died, including thousands of students trapped in schools of shoddy “tofu” construction. He created an art project recording their names and birthdates.
The charismatic Weiwei was born in 1957 in western China to which his father, a prominent poet, had been banished by the Cultural Revolution, never recovering from that persecution. The young Weiwei entered the Beijing film academy but turned his attention toward the fine arts and was allowed to go to New York to study design. He would stay over a decade, including the traumatic period of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, which shocked the artistic community. He returned to China in 1993 as the stirrings of a revival were being felt.
Weiwei was never going to be an artist within the system. He has been an iconoclast, a defiant disturber of the authoritarian regime, giving the finger to the powerful and the pompous. His provocative art installations (those in Munich and at London’s Tate Modern are shown) are both very personal and political in the sense of being imbued with a democratic spirit and upholding the right of free expression. He is also an inveterate blogger, producer of short documentaries posted online and user of social media, especially Twitter, which can get around the Communist state’s censoring firewalls. I loved his tweet that “there are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.”
There has been a price. He suffered a serious head injury from a police beating that prevented him from testifying in a case against another Chinese dissident. He has so far avoided the fate of writer Liu Xiaobo, awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while serving a lengthy prison sentence. But Weiwei’s Beijing studio was demolished in January 2011.
In April he was arrested and detained for 81 days. Indeed a perverse effect of the Arab Spring was to increase the Chinese dictatorship’s paranoia of contagion and intensify its crackdown.
Klayman’s film also paints a fascinating portrait of Ai Weiwei’s non-conformist personality as well as outsized influence. Like the legendary French filmmaker Chris Marker who died at age 91 last month, he loves cats. The first few minutes record him delighting in showing off one that can open doors. He has a proud mother and artist wife who stand behind him, even though he admits that fathering a child, a young son on whom he dotes, with another woman “friend” was “not desirable behaviour.” He doesn’t present himself as any kind of hero or secular saint.
Weiwei’s temporary silencing in 2011 certainly weighed on him, and the government also charged him with $2.4 million in alleged tax evasion, prompting thousands of supporters to contribute to his defence. As with the lawsuit he pursued against the police who assaulted him, he tests the legal system in order to expose its fraudulent prejudicial nature. (His tax appeal was rejected in June 2012.) The film ends with an October 2011 interview where his voice is again raised for freedom. There is something irrepressible about the man and his art. As a last Twitter post cheekily affirms: “Never retreat, retweet!”
Less famous but equally intriguing is Beijing-based 57-year-old blogger provocateur Zhang Shihe (a.k.a. “Tiger Temple”) profiled in Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life, a terrific Tribeca festival selection. A pioneering online citizen reporter (since “TV news is crap”), Tiger undertakes a 3,000-km bicycle journey around the country exposing inconvenient truths, accompanied by “Mongolia,” his feline companion and talking-cat web voice. Tiger laments that China’s vaunted economic growth has tricked and distracted many. But in fighting complacency and feelings of powerlessness he is convinced that “sooner or later they (dictatorships) all fall,” and he is buoyed by a new generation of “netizen” activists.
THE OTHER CHINA — Zola leaps over the Great (Fire) Wall in Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life. (Photo by Stephen Maing)
Among these the film follows the intrepid 27-year-old Zhou Shuguang (online name “Zola”), a vegetable seller from Hunan province who turns to exposing injustices and corruption unreported in the official news and becomes a minor Internet celebrity (though his family is less than thrilled). Zola may get blacklisted by the authorities and stopped from going to a conference in Germany, but the movement he is helping to train and inspire continues to grow. As he says, “the censors may stop some of us but they can’t stop all of us.”
Tiger and Zola meet and trade notes at an assembly of Chinese bloggers that brings together an older generation of social justice advocates with a new generation of “playful warriors” for individual freedom and human rights. Their methods may sometimes differ but both are engaged in a running cat-and-mouse battle with the Communist regime’s attempt to shut them down — so as “to prevent disruptions to social stability,” according to China’s State Internet Information Office. In 2012 Zola was prompted to move to Taiwan. Still, one feels confident that there are many more committed, if less flamboyant, Tigers and Zolas carrying forward the cyberspace challenge, and that ultimately their cause will prevail.
Why should we care about this other China that speaks the language of democracy instead of dollars? I think Klayman provides an answer when she states: “Never Sorry is not just about Weiwei, or China. I hope the film will move audiences to interrogate themselves. What is my vision for a better future? What would I risk to express myself? The most powerful impact this film can have is inspiring a new crop of outspoken artists, activists and citizens, with a strong vision for improving the future in their respective societies.”
Because we really are all in this together.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.