In recent years the Chinese state has worked hard to silence artist Ai Weiwei. They have placed him under surveillance and house arrest, slung him in jail for 81 days, interrogated him, threatened his family and associates, and beaten him so badly he had to have brain surgery.
But Ai remains undeterred, if not more convinced in of need to speak out against China’s lack of democracy and human rights abuses.
In Ai’s case, taking part in a citizen’s investigation on student casualties after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where many young people died because of shoddy government buildings, was an act of exposure that the secretive Chinese state couldn’t tolerate. Similarly, when Swedish filmmaker, Fredrik Gertten, tried to release a film about a US giant food corporation’s use of harmful pesticides, he found out how far such corporations will go to protect their image.
In both cases, Ai and Fredrik have been labelled as criminal for attempting to speak up for those with no voice and demanding transparency through their art. We have entered an era where the call for transparency is increasingly an act of sedition. In this globalised, internet dependent world, information has never been more easily shared and yet it is no accident that who has the monopoly over information is becoming the centre of the storm.
Under capitalism, states preside over severe social and economic inequality, and they do so largely by maintaining some kind of consensus.
But when the contradictions of the system become stark, it gets increasingly difficult to maintain consensual rule. We saw this in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. The level of protest in South Africa and certainly in many parts of the world, accompanies a more polarised society where pockets of poor and oppressed people have been left with no option but to gain voice through collective and sometimes violent expression.
A big indication that consensus is under threat is the rolling back of democratic freedoms. For many, the Secrecy Bill can be seen in this context. If the antics of the rich and powerful are being routinely exposed then it becomes harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes and convince them that all is being done to turn things around and share the cake more evenly. That all we have to do is hold our breath, wait for economic growth to pick up and for climate change to blow away.
Claude Marks’ film, Cointelpro 101, looks at the US government’s war on dissent that has quietly raged for several decades. The film centres on the threat posed by various progressive social movements in the 1960s and 1970s but makes the point that the acts of state violence, false arrests and murder of those labelled as dissident continue today. For along with a lack of transparency we’ve seen a marked increase in militarisation of so-called democratic states across the world.
In South Africa it is now routine for the police to deny applications for public assembly and it is now also common for protestors to be fired on with rubber bullets. The very sharp end of militarisation and lack of democracy was seen in August when Lonmin miners paid the ultimate price for going on strike. The impact of how they have been punished for demanding a fair wage has been felt beyond the Marikana community.
How the world responds to the kind of state brutality shown in Marikana on August 16th will be a barometer of how much people are prepared to defend our collective freedoms and whether we can hold on to them for much longer.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Big Boys Gone Bananas and Cointelpro 101 are part of the Freedom of Expression theme in this year’s Tricontinental Film festival. See the full lineup at the official website.