When Ai Weiwei was rising up in China, it was customary for individuals from the mainland to look down their noses at Hong Kongers. “We thought that they had no severe tradition. We thought they have been colonial topics solely interested by being profitable and martial arts movies. They weren’t political,” the exiled 63-year-old artist recollects over WhatsApp from the again of a automobile parked in Lisbon.
That childhood view will get turned on its head in Ai’s deeply shifting documentary Cockroach, in regards to the Hong Kongers who took to the streets to protest in opposition to overweening Chinese language rule final 12 months. It’s they who change into cultured, utopian and supplied political resistance to the mainland’s barbarous clampdown.
A lot of the movie’s energy comes from its meticulous footage of pitched avenue battles – amongst them November 2019’s siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic College and the blockade of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel. Ai’s movie focuses on the largely younger protesters utilizing all of the weapons at their disposal – pavement slabs, molotov cocktails, even cop-distracting laser pointers – to withstand Chinese language authorities. It was they who we see within the movie cannily making use of the “be water” preventing strategy of Hong Kong’s most well-known son, Bruce Lee, to protest within the streets. Again and again we see them retreating from barricades as police advance with water cannon and teargas, solely to re-emerge streets away.
For Ai they’re spectacular as a result of, whereas dwelling in one of the crucial unaffordable cities on the planet, they fought not for materials enchancment however for rules. “They’re heroes as a result of they have been preventing for democracy and civil society with no actual hope that they might obtain their goals. They’re clear, properly educated and above all honest. They have been preventing not for jobs or cash however issues that appear to be summary. It’s about human dignity. I actually assume I’m one in every of them.”
Ai has lengthy been sympathetic to Hong Kong’s struggles for democracy and freedom. When the Umbrella Revolution began in 2015, he tweeted “I’m a Hong Konger.” He says: “I used to be simply expressing solidarity however the Chinese language authorities thought I used to be one of many leaders of the revolution and delayed returning my passport.” That suspicion was comprehensible, as a result of the artist had change into an icon of resistance. “My picture was beamed at evening on to navy buildings,” he recollects. “However even earlier than that I received into hassle by giving a chat on the Chinese language College of Hong Kong which the authorities informed me was subversive. It was subversive however I used to be by no means a frontrunner. What is gorgeous about Hong Kong is that their revolution is leaderless. They’re resilient as a result of they rely upon self-organisation, not rule from above.”
Final 12 months’s demonstrations have been provoked by a now-abandoned legislation that will undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy by permitting extradition to mainland China. 4 and a half years after the failed Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kongers demonstrated in opposition to Beijing’s betrayal of its “one nation, two techniques” settlement with Britain, whereby the previous colony may preserve some distinctive freedoms for 50 years. However the demonstrations have been about greater than that. “These persons are distinctive on the planet as a result of they’re standing as much as China. Most individuals do to not act. They’re too apprehensive about their jobs. Many international locations don’t dare stand as much as China. However these persons are keen to sacrifice every little thing for his or her beliefs.”
Ai struggled to get authorities to speak for his movie. “Finally we received two guys within the police who fought within the streets to talk on movie. They’re sincere. They don’t seem to be pleased with what they’re doing. However as a job what else can they do?” A type of closely disguised officers captures the surreal, performative facet of the road battles when he says: “Who needs to be Lex Luthor? Everybody needs to be Superman. However that is the script. We now have to play a job.” The movie known as Cockroach as a result of that, together with molotov cocktails and bricks, was one of many phrases of abuse flung over the barricades on the despised police.
For Ai, these police and the now aborted extradition legislation are a part of that ugly phrase used so much in his movie, specifically “mainlandisation”. “The Chinese language authorities have some huge cash. And even when they didn’t, they might spend all of it to keep up stability and management utilizing police and propaganda.
“They haven’t any different technique to do it, as a result of they don’t negotiate. They don’t have any tolerance. They don’t give an inch. They merely arrest the individuals who disagree. That is simplest. I do know from my very own expertise, however they’ve been controlling like this for 70 years. In my father’s day, a million intellectuals disappeared and no person knew. As we speak, horrible issues are on the information and no person cares. I don’t know which is worse.”
Ai’s late father, Ai Qing, a poet, was exiled to Xinjiang throughout Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the place he cleaned communal bathrooms for 5 years and, in response to his son, misplaced imaginative and prescient in a single eye due to poor vitamin. His poems weren’t printed till after his “rehabilitation” in 1979.
Ai has little question that the destiny of Hong Kong is to be absorbed into the Chinese language mainland, regardless of the need of its individuals. “Perhaps it’ll change into like Xinjiang or perhaps it’ll change into like Shanghai. It gained’t change into what the protesters hope.”
Few would doubt this evaluation. For the reason that occasions depicted in Cockroach happened, most of the activists interviewed in Ai’s movie – together with Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam – have been jailed for his or her roles within the protests. In June, China imposed a nationwide safety legislation. Since then, pro-democracy legislators have been disqualified from elected workplace and lecturers have been pressured from universities.
Ai moved final September from Berlin to Cambridge in order that his 10-year-old son, Lao, may get a greater schooling and be spared the racism he says he skilled in Germany. “I’m completely satisfied I left Berlin for a extra pleasant atmosphere.” He admires Britain for its condemnation of Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong protesters, and for providing refugees a protected haven. “I believe that may be a crucial gesture. Perhaps half one million individuals would qualify. In the long term it’s actually value it as a result of they’re very nice professionals, very properly educated, who will recognize what Britain would do for them.”
To this point, fingers crossed, Cambridge is understanding for Ai. “I like to speak to individuals who provide you with time for clarification, and the British persons are affected person on that. I would like a bit of consolation. I’ve had sufficient harshness in my life.”
That’s an understatement. Raised in powerful provincial exile, he grew to become as artist and activist an unrelenting critic of the authoritarian regime. Consequently he was jailed, refused journey inside China and had his passport withdrawn. In 2015 he left his homeland by no means anticipating to be allowed to return.
The making of Cockroach was, in consequence, a difficult enterprise. He directed by distant management, sending a crew of film-makers together with a journalist specialising in reporting from battle zones to shoot in Hong Kong for six months. Later, he labored on the fabric again in Britain. Will you ever be capable to return to China? “I preserve the hope however I don’t have any illusions about my probabilities.” He wish to go to his mom, who’s 88, though he talks to her every single day.
For all of the constraints imposed by exile and pandemic, Ai has been working laborious throughout lockdown. Cockroach is one in every of three movies he accomplished this 12 months. Vivos, launched in January, tells the story of the 43 college students who have been attacked in Mexico in 2014 and by no means seen once more. Coronation, his portrait of Wuhan through the pandemic, was launched to positive evaluations in September. Every of those movies bears the hallmarks of Ai’s conscience. He says he grew to become an artist correctly solely in 2009 when he coated the facade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich with backpacks to spell out in Chinese language the next phrases: “All I would like is to let the world bear in mind she had been dwelling fortunately for seven years.” These have been the phrases a mom informed Ai when he investigated the disappearance of 5,335 schoolchildren in Sichuan after the area’s 2008 earthquake.
Why do you make such political works? “I solely make movies and artwork about issues that fascinate me intellectually and emotionally, I like to know extra. To try this you need to arrange some obstacles to beat. Or get into hassle. That helps you be taught.”