Documentary Is Just One of My Tools: The Digital Film Activism of Ai Weiwei

By J.P. Sniadecki

The celebrity status of Chinese artist, architect, and social activist Ai Weiwei has been steadily constructed over the past decade via his multimedia provocations and large-scale interventions in both art and politics. Combining a bold conceptual vision with a staunch belief in the artist’s role as social critic, his works have aimed to traverse boundaries, push buttons, and, ultimately, redefine our sense of what is possible. An early work that possesses Ai’s characteristic mix of hard-edged critique, bravery, and humour is an untitled photograph taken of his soon-to-be wife, Lu Qing, in Tiananmen Square lifting her skirt up to the camera on the fifth anniversary of the 1989 massacre. Mao’s portrait, hanging on the façade of the Forbidden City, is framed just over her shoulder. For documenta 12 in 2007, Ai presented Fairytale, an epic work that activated a wide range of fairytales by enabling 1,001 Chinese citizens who responded to Ai’s online call for participants to travel to Kassel, Germany and reside in a massive living-space installation for the full duration of the international art event. When the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series commissioned a sculpture from him in 2010, he gave them Sunflower Seeds, filling vast Turbine Hall with one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds hand-crafted by 1,600 workers from the porcelain capital of China, Jingedezhen. With a flair for publicity and a strong social conscience, Ai the prankster-artist has climbed to the top of the international art world—he’s been called the most important figure in art today by Art Review magazine—all the while speaking truth to power and launching daring attacks against the Chinese government.

Many observers have claimed that it is this very success overseas that bought Ai a special form of political immunity at home. After all, the authorities might not be keen to take down such a valuable source of global cultural capital (interestingly, his name and work remain unknown to the majority of citizens of the People’s Republic). It also doesn’t hurt that he is the son of famous Party poet Ai Qing, who had his own dramatic ups and downs with the Chinese government. But no one, not even Ai himself, was certain that he actually possessed this protective talisman. As his fame and reach expanded, detractors in the Chinese art world blew him off with the label of a fenqing, or “angry youth,” barking from his privileged position, while his supporters, revelling in his brazen whistle-blowing on corruption and illegality, followed his blog and, when that got shut down in 2009, his many daily postings on China’s microblog Weibo. (For non-Chinese speakers interested in his blog posts, MIT Press has recently translated and compiled them into Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants 2006-2009.) Tensions between Ai and the authorities escalated, and the Shanghai government even demolished the very studio they had invited him to build to springboard a nascent urban art space there. Finally, this spring, during revolutions in the Arab world and their jasmine-tinted aftershocks in China, his international stardom reached its crowning moment—and his immunity proved limited: he was detained by Chinese authorities for three hard months of confinement and interrogation as he was preparing to set up a base in Berlin. Released on bail and facing a list of economic crimes and over $2.4 million US in fines and back taxes, all eyes are now on Ai.

It is clear that Ai’s outspoken internet postings and his activism contributed to his detention, but another related cause that has been less explored in overseas discussions is his role as a documentary filmmaker. Working with a production team organized through his Beijing studio—his residence and his main headquarters located in the northwest corner of the capital—Ai has released eight guerilla-style documentaries and many short online videos that, in their rough style and critical approach, seek to initiate a space of open inquiry and free speech around social issues in China. These goals may appear similar to those pursued by Chinese independent filmmakers such as Wang Bing, Zhao Liang, and Zhao Dayong, but Ai’s work is far more confrontational, far more directly political in function, and absolutely devoid of concern for both cinema aesthetics and the status of the artist. His are hard-hitting activist films that are shot in-situ, edited together swiftly, and then immediately posted online to contribute to his larger project of unmasking abuses of power and egregious cover-ups. Thus, his films are akin to the work of Guangzhou-based activist Ai Xiaoming’s films and Xu Xin’s Karamay (2010), the powerful six-hour documentary about a tragic fire that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent schoolchildren in an oil town in the northwestern province of Xinjiang (Ai’s studio staff actually helped Xu Xin post Karamay online). Yet the major difference here is that Ai’s interventionist filmmaking often compels him to puncture the body of the film itself by appearing on screen to present challenges to authorities in direct defiance of their power. In fact, what captivates and thrills Chinese audiences—the majority of whom view these films on laptops after downloading them for the brief window that the films remain undetected by internet police—is exactly the daring verbal assaults Ai hurls at police officers and officials who fail to respond to his demands for fairness, justice, and greater transparency.

Ai’s quest to expose the injustices buried in the national propaganda that smothered open public discussion after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake resulted in the production of three powerful films on the tragedy, all released in 2009: Little Red Cheeks (Hua Lian Ba Er), 4851, and Disturbing the Peace (Lao Ma Ti Hua). Little Red Cheeks is a feature-length documentary that was shot in the wake of the earthquake, when Ai organized a “citizens’ investigation” consisting of on-going grassroots, door-to-door investigations of the shoddy construction of schools that contributed to the high death toll of children in the earthquake. The film weaves through disaster sites, witnesses the grief and suffering of survivors, and follows Ai and other “citizen investigators” as they try to track down every name of every child who died in the earthquake. In hopes of suppressing public outrage over poor construction and corruption, Sichuan officials have made no efforts to document these casualties. Ai’s project is to fill that void, and his obsession with recording every child not only has a physical manifestation in the form of a growing list of more than 5,000 names and background information of the children that occupies an entire wall in his studio, but also a cinematic one: the film titled 4851. Over the course of 87 minutes, 4851 presents the names of 4,851 schoolchildren lost to the earthquake. The list of names, titled in white against a black background, form a social meditation on the tragedy and a political defiance of official silence.

The third film, Disturbing the Peace, follows Ai and his colleagues, mostly activists and lawyers, as they travel to Chengdu in August of 2009 to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, who is on trial for his own systematic investigation of the oversights in the quality of school construction. The film begins with the gay atmosphere of the train ride from Beijing to Chengdu. Ai and crew arrive at night and notice that they are being monitored by plainclothes policemen stationed outside their hotel. In the middle of the night, Ai is awakened by banging at his room door. He grabs his sound recorder, and documents the arguments and violence that ensue as men claiming to be policemen break in and beat him. A female colleague is taken away in the night, and Ai and the rest of his team are detained in the hotel until after the trial is over, thus preventing them from testifying in defense of Tan. The rest of the film tracks Ai, two lawyers, and the husband of his colleague in custody as they try to find her exact whereabouts. The exasperated team grapples with the opaque justice system and travel from police station to public security headquarters only to be denied any clear account of her whereabouts and why she was taken away, with each officer they encounter passing the buck to another. Ai looms large in the film, shouting at police chiefs and berating officials. His fuming anger may be attributable to his damaged sense of justice, but he was also reeling from his head wound, a cerebral hemorrhage, for which he was hospitalized a month later in Germany.

Ai’s working method of keeping a buzzing hive of assistants and fellow artists at his 258 Caochangdi Fake Studio (“fake,” when pronounced as syllables in Chinese pinyin, sounds analogous to English “fuck”) has been likened to Warhol’s Factory, and his documentary output is no different. It relies on production teams, made up of both regular members and temps, who are sent out to locations around the nation and follow a story much like investigative journalists. Thus, at the time the three Sichuan earthquake films were in production, Ai was also able to focus his attention on the case of Yang Jia. Yang was a 28-year-old Beijing resident who drew national headlines when, on the morning of July 1, 2008, the 87th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, he stormed a police station in a Shanghai suburb armed with Molotov cocktails, tear gas, a hammer, and a knife. Before police could subdue him, he stabbed six police officers to death and injured three more. Yang’s motives for such violence originate from what he claimed was an abuse of justice in 2007 when, as a tourist in Shanghai, a police officer arrested him for riding an unlicensed bicycle. The officer took him to the station for interrogation, where he was denied basic rights and beaten by a gang of police. Once released and back in Beijing, he and his mother, Wang Jingmei, worked through every possible legal channel to have their case heard, and even tried to sue the police. Officials from Shanghai came to Beijing to bribe Yang Jia and his mother, offering ever-increasing loads of cash. Dedicated to higher ideals and driven by perhaps unrealistic demands of a corrupt system, Yang Jia and his mother refused all offers and continued to insist that the police officers responsible for the beating stand trial. Denied justice at every step, Yang eventually, lethally, took matters into his own hands.

Like many across the country, Ai was certain that Yang would not be given a fair trial. He sent a team led by artist Zhao Zhao to Shanghai to follow the case. The resulting two-hour film, One Recluse (Yi ge Gupi de Ren), is “dedicated to all those who work towards equality and justice in Chinese society” and brings together blog postings by Ai Weiwei written in reaction to the unfolding case, various opinions of legal experts, the reactions of the Shanghai public, and the feelings of Yang Jia’s relatives and father. The morning of the slayings, Yang Jia’s mother, even before she knew about her son’s crimes and without being given an explanation, was taken into custody by authorities and held in an undisclosed detention centre on the outskirts of Beijing. She knew her detention had to do with her son, but she was not told exactly what had happened until after Yang Jia was executed. Thus, during the filming of One Recluse, there was no way of interviewing her. After she was released, Zhao Zhao conducted an extended interview with her, and the DVD of One Recluse includes another film, simply titled Wang Jingmei, which is primarily a talking heads hour-long account made by Wang Jingmei about her son’s desperate battle for justice and her own Kafka-esque experience in detention. The film ends with Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s soundtrack of plaintive howls and power-ballad chords over soft-focus slow-motion images of the two divorced parents burning paper money in memory of their executed child. Close-ups of the tearful mourners dissolve into images of ashes lofting into the gray sky. With this sudden and intense sentimental move, is Ai Weiwei portraying cop-killer Yang Jia as a hero?

By provocatively contradicting official rhetoric, the films produced in the Ai Weiwei studio surely played a part in the government’s decision to rein in the loud-mouthed international heavyweight; yet, there are no clear distribution channels for this work within China and, as mentioned above, these films are only now gaining attention outside China, though ten will be screened at the upcoming International Film Festival Rotterdam. The latter may largely be due to the fact that to date only two of the over 20 Ai Weiwei films have been subtitled in English (Disturbing the Peace and Fairytale, a 152-minute documentary focused on the process, preparations, and execution of Ai Weiwei’s contribution to documenta 12). In addition, according to Ai, these documentaries are first and foremost intended for the Chinese domestic audience. Yet the question of distribution in China is a troubled one. As soon as Ai’s team posts them online, they are taken down. In September 2010, he set up his own Youtube Channel (user: aiweiweidocumentary) that features his documentary work, but China’s Great Firewall prevents most Chinese from actually accessing the site. Fortunately, similar to his willingness to gift the porcelain sunflowers from his lauded Sunflower Seeds installation, Ai will gladly ship a set of DVDs to anyone who requests them, free of charge. With his intended main platform for distribution—the internet—more or less taken away, constant re-posting is all that can be done to get these eye-opening documentary investigations into the hands of Chinese citizens.

My first encounter with Ai’s films came after making a trip to his studio one bitter cold morning in January 2010. As I left, he slid five DVDs into my hands. It was over a year-and-a-half later, and under very different circumstances, when I finally caught up with him again to discuss his gifts. He is not officially allowed to give interviews, nor to produce any films, but he told me he has the personal need to commit at least one act of disobedience a day.

Cinema Scope: When did you decide to work in video, to use documentary as one form of your work?

Ai Weiwei: In fact, my process of documenting started as early as the 1980s while I was living in New York, and at the time I was using my still camera a lot. That was from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. I also shot some video, but I have never used that footage in any of my work. It was more a simple documentation of my life, of the things I found interesting. We normally think that to document is to record some part of reality, but no matter how real the act of documenting may seem to be, it is not a part of reality at all. It is only a part of the act of documenting. The moment it is brought into the open, people understand that there is a great difference between that which is reality and that which is documented. And this includes when the documentarian himself sees things that he actually does not understand, and every time he sees the documentary it is always different. I think this is very interesting. Documentary itself has its own independence: despite the fact that is it you documenting, it does not mean that you truly understand that which you document. All you are doing is merely making this thing happen, making this document appear.

You ask when I started to make this a part of my work, but in reality when I started to make documentaries, I didn’t think of making “works,” I was simply documenting. Just like when I started to design buildings, I never thought of myself as an architect. I only thought, “We need buildings that are functional.” Of course, in the process, you need to make decisions and judgments. Why use this piece and not that piece? You have to make choices. Of course, these choices are based on judgment, and these judgments are based on aesthetics, philosophy, all kinds of inexplicable things. Judgment makes up a style, and this style can be said to be an activity related to art.

As for the short documentaries, the first one I worked on was a film by my brother Ai Dan in 2003, at the time of SARS. We thought SARS was totally special, with society in an abnormal state, so we made a short film called Eat, Drink, and Be Merry During SARS (Feidian Shiqi de Chi He Wan Le). At the same time, I also made Beijing 2003. For that piece, the idea was to make Beijing into a visual map, to make a film that covers all of the city’s hutong alleys in 150 hours. At the time I was teaching, and everyday the students and I would get on the bus and go. We went all around Beijing, dividing the city into 16 areas that we would film, and in the end we edited together a 150-hour piece. This work was my first documentary work, and it didn’t really have any clear intention or any personal aesthetic judgment. It was simply an act of recording, then stopping, and then the next day begin recording from where we last stopped recording, and so on. When it was over, we just put it out into the world, without any changes or adjustments to the image. We recorded whatever appeared before the lens. And we filmed Chang’An road, the second ring road, the third ring road, and so on.

Scope: But from Fairytale to Little Red Cheeks and Disturbing the Peace and One Recluse, you used a different style?

Ai: We started a series of social investigations, which I think are crucial, because the accurate record of these investigations is not only important for us but also for history. We wanted to help those who cared about the projects we pursued. And at that time we had already thought about how we would utilize the internet. I may be an artist, but I really don’t like to work as “an artist.” It is foolish to act the role of the artist. Michelangelo painting frescoes, or Rodin sculpting clay figures, those methods belong to those particular periods. Today we don’t have churches, so what is the point of painting all those paintings? Paint a canvas in order to hang in a museum or on a rich person’s wall? I am not very interested in those things. I also don’t want to serve anyone. So what can we do? I think the internet is a great medium, so the films I was interested in making were those that could be put online.

We posted them everywhere, anywhere we could. And as soon we posted them, they would be deleted, so we would post them in other places. We usually posted the films on five or six sites, and they would all be taken down. I am actually least interested in posting on YouTube, since it is unavailable in China, and I don’t make these films just for foreigners. I make these films mainly for the young people of China because, unlike overseas, there are so few in China who can make this kind of work. We still show them to a few people who can get over China’s Great Firewall, but this was not my original intention. But we have no choice, because we are resisting a blockade against information and knowledge. If we can only post these documentaries overseas, then it proves that the internet policing technology is really incredible, and so the film’s impact is greatly lessened, but we really have no other choice.

Scope: How do you select the topics for your films? The Sichuan earthquake and the case of Yang Jia are captivating topics, but every day in China so many things happen that are worthy of attention and investigation.

Ai: When I started getting online, I actually didn’t pay much attention to the things that happened everyday. But as soon as I did see something, such as the case of Yang Jia, I wrote 60-70 articles, and it became something I couldn’t hide from. I wanted to talk about it clearly. When I do something, I hope to do it with accuracy and clarity, no matter how small of a matter it is. But most people lack the patience, perseverance, and persistence to do the same, and this is especially true for Chinese people, which is why this society is the way it is today.

Scope: What is the division of labour in your documentary work?

Ai: I am engaged in many things all at once, and my hope is that more people participate and join in. Because these things are not only my own. We are a team, and this team can be as large as 40 or 50 people working together, and even sometimes more than 100 people. So this person does this, that person does that, and you might tell someone to go out today and film something, and when that person comes back you take a look, let them know what works, what doesn’t work, and what we need more of tomorrow. There are some individuals who regularly serve as the videographers, like Zhao Zhao or Guo Ke, but there are also some who are not regular. Anyone can film. For example, when we filmed A Beautiful Life (Mei Hao Shenghuo) [a documentary about the plight of Feng Zhenghu, the Shanghai-based human-rights advocate who was denied re-entry into China and stranded in Tokyo’s Narita Airport for 92 days], we asked, “Which one of us has a passport?” We had a young American working here who had a passport and didn’t need a visa to go to Japan, so he just flew direct to Japan and started filming upon arrival. He had never filmed anything in his life, never even held a camera before, but as far as I am concerned, it is all the same. No matter who films, it is all the same. All you need to do is press record. He asked me what was the most important thing in documentary and I said, “Press record.”

Scope: The key is to capture the moment “live” and “on the scene?”

Ai: The most important thing is to record, the second most important thing is to record, and the third most important thing is to record. You might feel awkward or uncertain about filming when the police are present, that if you were to record then they would give you trouble straightaway. You fear that the cops will immediately take away your camera. But I say that if you don’t film because of police presence, then they’ve already taken the camera away from you. If you don’t film, then what use is your camera? To get just a few authentic shots, as a videographer, is the most important. This brings us back to the earlier question: because you are doing this work of documentation, there is no need to think about the equipment and framing. All you need to do is record. I don’t care if your camera work is shaky or if your composition isn’t strong, just press record. So there are lots of rough images in these films, but I don’t think this is a problem at all. This is a problem left for the editors.

Scope: You just said that recording is the most important, and this statement may lead some to think that when filming it isn’t necessary to think too much, that they simply need to stand there, on the scene, and record.

Ai: Filming is merely only one part of the whole process of filmmaking. There’s thought, editing, exhibition, and explanation, and these aren’t things that are accomplished by the act of filming. If you think you can accomplish them by simply filming, this is impossible. It’s very difficult to cultivate a documentary filmmaker if he has no brain. It’s hard to cultivate a writer, for example. Do any good writers come out of writing courses? I don’t think so, despite whatever techniques and skills are presented.

Scope: You mean you are against a formulaic or trained aesthetics?

Ai: Right, that is the worst, totally clichéd. A unique aesthetic must be anti-aesthetic. If it doesn’t achieve anti-aesthetics, then it is not unique. Whether or not the content and shooting style of my films are flawless, or if the quality of each image is good or not, I don’t see these as real questions. It’s like if you were to give me a fabric: I could create clothing out of it. Even if it is an old and tattered hemp sack that was gleaned from the trash, I could still design an article of clothing from it. It is only the material. But if you don’t have that material, that piece of fabric, there is no possible way I can produce clothing for you. So, with the films, all I ask is that you bring back materials.

Editing is very important, especially documentary editing. When editing these films, I talk with the editor and explain my intention, and we make cuts, changes, and editing decisions, again and again. And after that we use music to supplement the image. When we are close to finishing, we discuss things extensively, and most of the time ask the musician-artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou to contribute the music. His music is pretty rough and raw, just like my films. I don’t want something light or exquisite.

Scope: In Fairytale, Little Red Cheeks, and Disturbing the Peace, you appear before the camera, and some critics have called your presence in these films as a kind of performance art.

Ai: I don’t think this is performance art, and I think those people who call it that have no clue about performance art. Simply appearing before the camera’s lens does not make it performance art. Sometimes you just have to appear. This is my activism. If I don’t document, if I don’t charge to the front, what are others going to do? It’s my idea to do this investigation, so if I don’t participate then it lacks something of its original impetus.

For Disturbing the Peace, we filmed the process of going to Sichuan, where I was going to serve as a witness [for Tan Zuoren], and I was beaten. At the time we thought, “How can we tell other people?” I took lots of photos and posted them on Twitter and suddenly the whole world knew about it. When we got back to Beijing, we started thinking about what more could be done. I had recorded the sound of them knocking down my door, and we had all gone to Sichuan with video cameras to document the process. In fact, from Fairytale, I started to film everything. But then I grew frustrated, because we didn’t edit the footage into anything, and I was so frustrated that I couldn’t continue filming. Because we had filmed too much. But after the tremendous response online from my posting of that sound recording, I figured we should see if we could make a film from the footage we shot while in Sichuan. I gave the footage to my friend and it was quickly edited together in one week. I never thought that we were making a documentary, that the footage would finally become a film. If we had thought in advance to make a documentary, it would be much better than the final film now.

Scope: But in most documentary filmmaking, the best moments are never able to be filmed, no matter how much you may have prepared.

Ai: I take a tough stance, and we film with insistence and force. That kind of style no one has ever done before in China, because China is different than Michael Moore’s USA, where there is rule of law and effective lawyers. There are lots of problems when we film with force: we can be beaten to the point of suffering a brain hemorrhage, you know? Even before filming it was already like this, for this society is rather brutal and without rules. So, I am not producing films just to produce film, but rather to bring these stories and injustices into the wider sphere so that others can know. Many people think that I make films for the films themselves, and this is totally laughable. We do so many things here, not just films. I am an artist or maybe better to say a participant in society. Documentary is just one of my tools.

Scope: Some Chinese documentary filmmakers and cinephiles I’ve spoken with about your work say that the films of Ai Weiwei surpass their imagination of what is possible, and that they themselves cannot do the same kind of work you do.

Ai: Their minds have atrophied and they have no imagination. It’s not that I surpass them; I am quite normal. They have simply atrophied too much. They are too focused on the frame and aesthetics, but I have no interest in those things. I don’t want to film a beautiful image. I just want to bring a story to light and present a point of view.

Scope: So you believe that questions of form, beauty, and aesthetics should be placed behind politics and clarity in terms of priority?

Ai: I think that emotion is the most important. This emotion could be beautiful or not, and violence is one kind of emotion. For example, when we see Gaddafi just before he is killed, or the images of Qian Yunhui [the Zhejiang village leader who was killed by being run over by a truck, allegedly for his outspoken resistance to a land grab by a power plant company], I think it is a form of documentary, and it is violent and not at all beautiful, but it is powerful. What is the degree of our relationship to beauty these days? Not much at all, and I think beauty is ineffective and boring. I’ve waited many years for it, but beauty has not appeared, so if it won’t come then I won’t keep waiting. I still need to eat, use the toilet, go to the hospital. It is hard to wait for beauty.

Scope: Rather than being focused on beauty, is it fair to say that your films are focused on big events, that your films are event-based investigations?

Ai: I don’t really like to make films about things that everyone is paying attention to. We are right now filming the story of Qian Yunhui in order to investigate the actual investigation of his murder. I am filming the investigators, asking what methods they are using, and what their point of view is. In fact, there is no way to make this matter clear, to know if it is a traffic accident or an assassination. If the government does not carefully carry out the investigation, then others have no way of reaching a conclusive understanding. But I can investigate the investigators themselves. So, we are not really interested in filming hot topics, and when we decided to film the trial of Yang Jia there was no one else paying much attention. Yang Jia was one man who killed six police officers, so many people avoided the matter. As for the Sichuan earthquake, an event as big as that, many people went to film. Each individual pursues his/her own things, and one person cannot do everything, no one has that much energy.

Scope: After I watched these five films, I found them extremely rich and diverse, not only in their pursuit of a social investigation and their dissemination of previously concealed information, but also in their depiction of a confrontation or conflict between your idealism and social reality. Your idealism seeks open and public discussion, equality, freedom…

Ai: It is primarily a matter of freedom of speech: it is just that simple. No matter how wrong or mistaken my point of view may be, I still want to have the right to speak, the right to be heard. In this society, if this right has no way of being guaranteed, then there is no point in speaking about democracy, freedom, and human rights. Humans have being discussing these questions for hundreds of years, and there is no need to discuss them again, they are universal truths. But how did they become politically sensitive questions here? Isn’t it comical? It’s like air and water, the most fundamental building blocks of life—if they are made scarce, how would we survive?

Scope: Film festivals are now coming to you with requests to screen your films. Why have you never in the past actively submitted these films to film festivals?

Ai: I think that posting the films online is already the greatest film festival possible; it is enough. What is the use of another film festival?

Scope: But now that they will be exhibited, will you attend some international festivals when they screen your films?

Ai: They won’t let me go. Now I am a suspect, a political criminal, guilty of this and that economic crime, and whatever else they say about me having a mistress and spreading obscene photos. So many different crimes I can’t keep track. Washing away all these crimes would take a lifetime. After all this, I hope to one day see a priest so he could say to me: “All is forgiven.”