Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An Evening with the Activist Documentary Filmmaker Ai Xiaoming

Documentary filmmaker, academic and activist Ai Xiaoming filming recently in Beijing. All images Dan Edwards.
Recently I was privileged to spend an evening with the academic and documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming, a key figure in China's network of activists employing digital video to put stories on screen the Chinese authorities would prefer remained out of sight.

Although I have been in contact with Ai Xiaoming for some time, I have not yet been able to see any of her films, so I was excited to learn she was going to be filming in Beijing. Ai is a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhong Shan Da Xue) in Guangzhou, not far from Hong Kong.

She has been making films for about six years and is a friend of Hu Jie, director of the groundbreaking works Though I Am Gone and In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul, which I wrote about here. Hu Jie has been the editor on several of Ai Xiaoming's films. Her most well-known work is probably Central Plains (aka The Epic of the Central Plains), which documents the plight of villages in Henan Province where thousands are infected with HIV due to the practices of unscrupulous blood collectors.

Originally I had just arranged to have dinner with Ai Xiaoming while she was in town, but when she called and asked if I would like to go with her to “meet a dissident artist” I leapt at the chance to see her in action.

Following her directions, I caught the subway from Dongzhimen on the edge of Beijing's embassy district to the far northwestern outskirts of the city, alighting at an outlying suburb I had never visited before called Longze. It was like stepping into provincial China, and it was hard to believe I was just a half-hour subway ride away from Beijing's cosmopolitan centre. As hordes of people swirled through the streets, low-end shops and cheap road-side restaurants plied their trade along pavements where everything looked half-finished – the edge of a city undergoing an incredibly rapid expansion.

Ai Xiaoming's reputation in China's activist community is such that I subconsciously envisioned an rather imposing figure, so I was surprised by the friendly, diminutive woman that greeted me and my translator at the station exit (I'm ashamed to say my Mandarin isn't up to a whole afternoon of conversation, although Ai Xiaoming actually speaks good English). As we climbed into the car of her friend and fellow filmmaker Li Hong, it became clear that behind Ai Xiaoming's smile lay a tough and determined personality.

As we pulled away from the station she told us she had just come from interviewing the mother of a child who had been poisoned by melamine in baby formula. The melamine contamination scandal swept China in late-2008, when it was revealed that many of China's dairies were adding the crystalline compound – used in the manufacture of synthetic resins and plastics – to their milk and infant formulas in order to create false readings in protein tests (adding melamine increases the nitrogen content, which is used to measure protein levels in some simple tests).

The government launched a heavily publicised “investigation,” arrested and punished a handful of prominent industry figures, doled out paltry compensation to some victims and promptly swept the whole episode under the carpet. There is considerable evidence to show the authorities knew about the use of melamine as early as December 2007, but did nothing for fear of tainting China's reputation in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.

Ai Xiaoming said the child of the woman she had interviewed was still suffering from the effects of melamine poisoning, while the woman’s husband is now in jail after he spoke out a little too loudly about the plight of the melamine victims.

As we pondered this grim story, we arrived at the home of artist Yan Zhengxue (严正学), who Ai told us had recently emerged from three years in jail. We pulled up in a surprisingly well-heeled apartment complex and I eyed the surrounds for signs of surveillance. But if anyone was watching they were keeping out of sight – the only obvious security presence was the lackadaisical teenage “guards” that loiter around every apartment complex in Beijing.

Ai Xiaoming immediately started filming as we wandered over to the artist's ground floor apartment, framing a plaque on the exterior wall featuring a short Bible passage.

Christianity is said to be rapidly gaining popularity in China's countryside, and certain sections of the urban activist community are also followers. Having grown up in the West I personally find this retreat into religion a little disturbing, since my experience with the Church is that the institution can be every bit as irrational, dogmatic and abusive as the Communist Party. Having said that, I can see why the tenets of Christianity appeal in a country that often feels like a moral and ethical vacuum.

As we entered Yan Zhengxue's small backyard via a gate from the road, the artist greeted us and showed us a pair of sculptures, featuring busts of two young women sitting just above head height on top of two metal cages. Inside the cages were bloodied clothes, various paraphernalia of the Cultural Revolution such as Mao badges and “Little Red Books,” and in one cage a bullet embedded in a crucifix.

The bust sitting above the crucifix was the subject of Hu Jie's documentary In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul. Lin was a writer and initially an ardent supporter of the Communist cause who fell foul of the authorities when she defended fellow students at Peking University denounced during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s. She became increasingly critical of Communist Party rule, embraced Christianity and was imprisoned in 1960, enduring various tortures and writing thousands of words of essays and poems in her own blood before being secretly executed in 1968.

Yan Zhengxue's sculpture of Lin Zhao, executed in Shanghai in 1968.
 The other sculpture was of Zhang Zhixin, who like Lin Zhao was once a dedicated Communist. During the Cultural Revolution she criticised the excesses of Mao and his wife Jiang Qing, and reportedly refused to denounce President Liu Shaoqi, condemned by Mao as China's “number one capitalist roader” (Liu died in prison in 1969).

As a result of her criticisms, Zhang Zhixin was imprisoned in 1969 and is said to have endured many tortures in jail, including rape by male prisoners. Hu Jie, who is currently making a documentary about Zhang, described her fate thus when I interviewed him earlier this year; “Throughout the denunciation process she was very determined and suffered the worst torture imaginable, but she never regretted what she did. When they went to shoot her [in 1975] they were afraid she would shout something on the way to the execution ground, so they removed her jaw. Then she struggled on the way to the execution ground, so they strangled her in the vehicle.”

Yan Zhengxue's sculpture of Zhang Zhixin, executed in 1975 for criticising Mao and his wife Jiang Qing.
Unsurprisingly, these two young women have become causes célèbres for those speaking out against the intense cruelty of Communist Party rule, as well as the party’s attempts to erase the details of its own atrocities.

Ai Xiaoming immediately began asking Yan Zhengxue questions on camera as we looked at the sculptures. He explained that upon his release from prison in mid-2009 he had set about creating the sculptures with the help of his wife, despite his weakened physical state. He claimed he has not been allowed to exhibit the sculptures in public, although according to this article he did try to show them at Beijing's 798 art district earlier this year. Yan also claimed the police have tried to confiscate the works on several occasions.

Ai Xiaoming interviews artist Yan Zhengxue in the yard of his ground floor apartment.
I was impressed by how quickly Ai Xiaoming cut to the chase with her work, which seemingly relied on no preparation – she simply grabbed her camera and started rolling. It seems the camera for her is simply a tool – perhaps “a weapon” to quote another local filmmaker Ou Ning – which Ai Xiaoming uses to capture her subject’s testimonies. She appeared uninterested in questions of style or aesthetics. When I chatted to her later that night about the decade Zhao Liang spent filming the predicament of petitioners in Beijing for his documentary Petition, Ai Xiaoming commented that she could never spend so long on a project. “Our aim is to change things,” she said firmly, which I took to mean she prefers to get stories into the public domain as quickly as possible in order to try and effect change – or at least contribute to ongoing campaigns.

Inside Yan's home we found a spacious room that seemed to function as a lounge, studio and dining room. As Ai Xiaoming set up her camera on a tripod we chatted and fragments of Yan's story emerged.

Ai Xiaoming interviews artist Yan Zhengxue in his apartment. The filmmaker Li Hong is beside Ai Xiaoming.

Yan said he had come to the attention of the authorities through his work advising peasants on their property rights. For years ordinary Chinese in both urban and rural areas have been thrown out of their homes, often with little or no compensation, to facilitate “development.” Sometimes these developments represent major government works, such as dams or public transport infrastructure, although these days in urban centres the land is often simply wanted for luxury apartment blocks. You can read about a story I wrote on this issue here.

Yan claimed that after he published an article on an American human rights website, the authorities decided enough was enough and he was imprisoned in 2006 during a round up of “troublemakers” prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He served most of his time in Dongbei, China's generic name for country's far northeast, formerly known in English as Manchuria.

Stories of corruption and casual violence peppered Yan's account of life inside prison. He claimed one very poor prisoner had 20 to 30 buckets of cold water thrown over him every morning during the Dongbei winter. Temperatures in that part of the world drop as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade (minus 40 Fahrenheit), and even daytime temperatures frequently hover below minus 20 (minus 4 Fahrenheit). Apparently this gratuitous cruelty was a demonstration for the wealthier prisoners of what lay in store if they failed to line the guards' pockets.

Yan also said he was placed in cells with mentally disturbed prisoners who beat him and by 2009 he was close to death. He was only released after the US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China in mid-2009 and presented President Hu Jintao with a list of political prisoners that human rights groups were particularly concerned about. No doubt fearing the death of an artist inside would reflect badly on China, Yan was released shortly after.

If this is true – and Yan’s release in July 2009 did follow hard on the heels of Pelosi's visit in June – then it's an interesting example of outside pressure influencing Chinese governmental decisions.

Yan wrote about his experiences while in prison and, he claimed, smuggled the manuscript out with the help of local farmers. He showed us pages of light paper covered in tiny, well formed characters, as well as a book (Ying hui yi shu xia ke) based on the manuscript which has recently been published in Hong Kong.

A page of Yan Zhengxue's prison manuscript.
Ai Xiaoming photographs pages of Yan Zhengxue's prison manuscript while the artist looks on.
Ai Xiaoming interviewed Yan about why the authorities remain so afraid of works of art that depict Lin Zhao and Zhang Zhixin. Between filming Ai explained to me that the interview was for a new documentary about the power of images in activism. The film will mainly comprise interviews with other documentary makers, journalists and people who have appeared in Ai’s earlier works.

Following the interview Yan pulled out a series of paintings he completed in prison, some of which he said were smuggled out and exhibited in the US while he was incarcerated. The dark images were full of twisted forms and awash with a red paint that looked like dried blood.

Ai Xiaoming filming paintings Yan Zhengxue said he completed while imprisoned in Dongbei.

Ai Xiaoming interviews Yan Zhengxue's wife.
After Ai Xiaoming finished filming, we all adjourned to a local restaurant, where Ai commented that she is currently unable to leave China as the authorities refuse to issue her a passport. In January she was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize (Prix Simone de Beauvoir pour la liberté des femmes) in France, but the authorities refused to let her travel to receive the honour in person.

Ai Xiaoming gave me several of her films which I'll write about once I have a chance to view them. I was honoured to have the chance to watch her in action and to meet Yan Zhengxue and his wife. All of these people quietly work at great personal risk to help their fellow citizens and lay the foundations for a more just, equitable and democratic China that will do justice to the memory of the millions who have suffered at the hands of the nation's seemingly endless procession of dictatorial leaders. It was both humbling and inspiring to meet them.


  1. The artist in this post was originally misidentified as "Yen Zhenxu." His correct name is Yan Zhengxue (严正学). The post has been altered accordingly. Apologies to Yan, and thanks to Ai Xiaoming for pointing out the mistake.

  2. Kewl. plus, props for no adds, dude.
    Aren Agopian Hoover