Discussing his approach to documentary filmmaking, China’s most notorious dissident and artist Ai Weiwei was interviewed by filmmaker and scholar JP Sniadecki for CinemaScope.
Known internationally for his artistic and interdisciplinary projects, which have become inseparable from steadfast political convictions and consequences, Ai Weiwei here addresses his work as a documentary filmmaker (many of these films are available on youtube), his concept of “social investigations,” the line between documentary and performance art, and his collaboration with other filmmakers.
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.
The interview can be accessed here in its entirety.