Chinese Reality #25: Disturbing the Peace

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art (May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Lao ma ti hua (Disturbing the Peace)

Ai-Weiwei-Disturbing-the-Peace

Disturbing the Peace (dir. Ai Weiwei)

2010. China. Directed by Ai Weiwei.

Artist and social activist Ai Weiwei has made several documentaries about his activities, but nowhere is he as prominent as in this chronicle of his troubles with local authorities during a trip to Chengdu in 2009. Traveling to support a detained civil rights advocate investigating corruption related to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai is assaulted in his hotel room and arrested by police. His subsequent investigation is both an unprecedented object lesson in civil rights self-defense and something akin to performance art, as he confronts the justice system to a breathtaking degree.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

In the fall of 2009, Chinese movie theatres débuted “The Founding of a Republic,” a big-budget political extravaganza to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. Around the same time, in no theatres anywhere, Ai Weiwei put out his own film entitled “Disturbing the Peace,” a no-budget documentary shot with a handheld camera, which documented a bizarre day in Chengdu, in which Ai, the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and others try to find out what happened to one of the artist’s assistants, after she disappeared into police custody following a raid on her hotel room. (In Chinese, the film is known as “Laoma Tihua.”) It is less a film than a visual record of a Sisyphean trip through the justice system.

- Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, April 4, 2011

Watching that movie, I’m pretty sure my jaw was open the entire time.

After they beat him they sent him back to Beijing, but they kept one of his assistants, a woman. So he flies back the next day with lawyers and confronts them about letting her go, and he’s filming the whole time, and the way he talks to the cops. The fact that it was all filmed, and that you’re sitting watching it, it was just unbelievable. You can’t not be a fan after watching that, especially for a young Chinese citizen, watching that and thinking “Somebody can do that? Somebody DID that?” It’s really mind-blowing.

- Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, interviewed in Vice

Not surprisingly, Alison Klayman’s forthcoming documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry draws heavily on Ai’s Sichuan films. However, if you have only seen the excerpts, you haven’t seen the half of it. Disturbing the Peace is particularly staggering, as Ai “talks truth to power” in a way officialdom is most definitely not accustomed to. Especially telling is the way he needles them with the Party’s own rhetoric. It is also chilling to witness, knowing how dearly he will pay for his boldness.

- Joe Bendel

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.

- J.P. Sniadecki, “Documentary Is Just One of My Tools: The Digital Activism of Ai Weiwei,” Cinema Scope

: 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.

- Ai Weiwei, interviewed by J.P. Sniadecki, Cinema Scope

Further reading: an interview on Ai Weiwei’s filmmaking with Zhu Rikun, curator of the Ai Weiwei film series at Jacob Burns Film Center, 2012