by C. J. Hirschfield
The 2014-15 @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibit, held at the now decommissioned and notorious prison, drew nearly 900,000 visitors, generated over 90,000 postcards to political prisoners all over the world, and illustrated the power of art when presented outside of a traditional museum or gallery setting.
A new film celebrates not only the internationally renowned Chinese artist/dissident at the apex of his career but the capacity of art to inspire and possibly effect change. The result is an uplifting and thought-provoking documentary on the subject of human rights and freedom. Ironically, neither the artist himself (who was in forced detention by the Chinese government at the time) nor one of the film’s producers had the opportunity to see the actual exhibit that is the center of the film, but their efforts ensured that its impact and inspiration will be even more broadly experienced. The film will be released in Virtual Cinemas on July 8, 2020.
Ai Weiwei: Yours, Truly had its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 14 of last year with the artist in attendance, and with lines around the block. The film was originally scheduled for theatrical release this March; right before the Coronavirus shutdown.
The Alcatraz exhibition was organized in 2014 by Cheryl Haines, a respected and long-time developer of “art about place,” which is designed to encourage fresh thinking. Known for her innovative partnerships, Haines commissioned Ai Weiwei to create a collection of new sculpture, sound and mixed-media installations. She is the film’s director (along with Gina Leibrecht), and her insider’s perspective provides a unique level of richness and depth to the telling.
For the artist, it turns out, the decision to use a jail as a canvas is personal. His poet father’s political imprisonment in 1957 for having been anti-party “left a huge shadow on me,” he says. The film informs us that a postcard his father received while confined—a small act of humanity–had a profoundly moving and transformational impact on both father and son, which the artist movingly discusses in the film. About prisoners of conscience, Weiwei says “I have an obligation to speak on their behalf.”
It’s interesting to learn about the challenges Haines encountered in mounting the exhibit in a former maximum-security prison (lack of internet and electrical, no large doors, all sealed windows, no installation when birds are nesting)—but the greatest challenge must have been to do all of this without the artist onsite to supervise the installation. In detention and under surveillance in Beijing, his passport was revoked by the government with no explanation given. “Because of art, I lost my personal freedom,” he says.
Watching the artist and his team fabricate the exhibit’s pieces from afar is fascinating. Stone, metal, wood, paper—and even 10,000 LEGO bricks—are employed to illustrate the importance and fragility of freedom. Assembled in Alcatraz, the ultimate effect is light and cheerful, but also reflective of the subject’s gravity. 12 prison cells feature music as well as the voices of imprisoned activists.
It is said about Weiwei that “people are his environment,” and it is the exhibit’s simple yet powerful postcards that are the heart of the exhibit– and of the new film.
Visitors were invited to write messages of hope to imprisoned human rights activists using cards imprinted with the national birds and flowers of the countries where the prisoners were being held, and by the time the exhibition ended, over 90,000 postcards—many written by children– had been sent all across the globe. Director Haines realized how powerful it would be to tell the stories of some of the prisoners who received the cards, to provide archival footage, as well as an interview with the artist’s own mother.
And that’s when Bay Area producer Christy McGill was brought on to manage this important part of the film, moving it through mid-late creative stages in preparation for release. It was a tight deadline, with a lot of moving parts. “Trying to honor their vision,” is how she describes her participation. From Bahrain to D.C., Cairo to China—she oversaw interviews with former prisoners of conscience and with family members of those still detained. She says the interviews revealed the comfort and hope they found in messages from people they would never meet. “It doesn’t take much to make a big difference; something analog that we can touch is profound.” There are American prisoners as well—former CIA waterboarding whistle-blower John Kiriakou and former soldier Chelsea Manning, who leaked classified information to WikiLeaks.
Music was then needed to provide the film’s “connective tissue,” McGill says, and composer Wendy Blackstone, with nine of the films she’s scored either nominated or winning Academy Awards, was chosen. Her eclectic soundscape perfectly complements the striking visuals.
Ai Weiwei has been beaten, arrested, detained, and exiled. This film shows us that his talent, sense of humor, voice and commitment to justice remain beautifully intact.
Ai Weiwei:Yours Truly is a love letter–well, a postcard, to be exact–to all of the people who “do one small thing every day to prove the existence of justice.” The film’s release date may have been delayed, but it seems its message is even more important now.
The movie can be seen via a favorite independent art cinema(they share on the “ticket” price with the distributor and filmmakers. If your local theater is not listed on the playdates page, encourage them to book the film! Please refer them to Marc Mauceri at firstname.lastname@example.org ).
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
ENJOY OUR ARTICLE LINKS, VIDEOS AND GALLERY OF PHOTOS BELOW
“Powerful… The documentary demonstrates that there is a worldwide network of people… who have taken great risks to make their voices heard.” – Barbara Pollack,ArtNews
“An inspiring effort, highlighting the power of the public to make a change in their societies and appreciate the fights undertaken by selfless people in the name of freedom.” – Film-News, UK
“Powerful… movingly puts Ai’s work into personal context.” – Peter Bradshaw, 4-star review, The Guardian
Presskit with bios, Director’s Statement and more.
“Stay home and stay together.” Ai offers coronavirus advice in new video.
Ai Weiwei, never one to shy away from getting involved in an activist cause, has turned his efforts toward supporting pandemic-related relief. In a new initiative launched as a collaboration with eBay, the artist and activist is selling limited-edition protective masks created in his studio in Berlin. All proceeds from the sales go to Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. They have raised over $1.4 million.
Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, spoke with artist and activist Ai Weiwei in a wide-ranging conversation covering populism, happiness, and the meaning of life. It’s part of Human Rights Watch’s new partnership with Frieze. Check out the full May 15, 2020 conversation here!
A gallery of photos from the Alcatraz project.