WAi Ai Weiwei grew up in China, it was common for people on the mainland to look down on Hong Kong. “I don’t think they have a serious culture. I thought they were colonial subjects only interested in making money and martial arts movies. They were not political “, the 63-year-old artist, exiled, remembers on WhatsApp behind a car parked in Lisbon.
This childhood vision returns in the deeply thought-provoking documentary Ai of the Beetle, about Hong Kong people who took to the streets to protest against Chinese rule last year. They are the ones who become cultured, utopian and have offered political resistance to the barbaric reduction of the continent.
Much of the film’s strength comes from its meticulous filming of street battles, including the November 2019 siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the blockade of the Cross-Harbor tunnel. Ai’s film focuses on young protesters, especially those who use all the weapons at their disposal – paving slabs, Molotov cocktails, even laser pointers that distract police – to resist the Chinese authorities. They were the ones we see in the film wisely applying the “be water” fighting technique of Hong Kong’s most famous son, Bruce Lee, to protest in the streets. Countless times we see them retreating from the barricades as the police advance with water cannons and tear gas to reappear on the streets.
For Ai, they are impressive because, while living in one of the most inaccessible cities in the world, they fought not for material improvement, but for principles. “They are heroes because they fought for democracy and civil society without any real hope that they will achieve their goals. They are clear, well educated and above all sincere. They were fighting not for jobs or money, but for things that seemed abstract. It is about human dignity. I really think I’m one of them. “
Ai has long felt the sense of Hong Kong’s struggles for democracy and freedom. When the Umbrella Revolution began in 2015, he wrote on Twitter “I’m a Hong Konger.” He says: “I am just expressing my solidarity, but the Chinese authorities thought I was one of the leaders of the revolution and delayed the return of my passport.” This suspicion was understandable, because the artist had become an icon of resistance. “My image was transmitted at night to military buildings,” he recalls. “But even before that, I got into trouble with a discussion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which the authorities told me was subversive. He was subversive, but I was never a leader. What is beautiful about Hong Kong is that their revolution is without a leader. They are resilient because they depend on self-organization, not top government. “
Last year’s demonstrations were sparked by a now-abandoned law that would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, allowing extradition to mainland China. Four and a half years after the failed Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong demonstrated against Beijing’s betrayal of its “one country, two systems” agreement with Britain, by which the former colony could retain some unique freedoms for 50 years. . But the demonstrations were more than that. “These people are unique in the world because they are in front of China. Most people do not act. They are too worried about their jobs. Many countries do not dare to resist China. But these people are willing to sacrifice everything for their beliefs. “
You tried to get the authorities to speak for his film. “Finally, we received two boys in the police who fought in the streets to talk in the film. They’re honest. They are not proud of what they do. But what else can I do as a job? One of these heavily disguised officers captures the surreal, high-performance aspect of street fighting when he says, “Who wants to be Lex Luthor?” Everyone wants to be Superman. But this is the scenario. We have to play a role. “The film is called beetle because, along with cocktails and Molotov cocktails, it was one of the terms of abuse thrown over the barricades at the despised police.
For Ai, this police and extradition law now aborted are part of that ugly word used a lot in his film, namely “continentalization”. “The Chinese authorities have a lot of money. And even if he didn’t, he would spend everything to maintain stability and control using the police and propaganda.
“They have no other way to do this, because they are not negotiating. They have no tolerance. I don’t give an inch. He is simply arresting people who disagree. This is the most effective. I know from my own experience, but they’ve been in control for 70 years. In my father’s time, a million intellectuals disappeared and no one knew. Today, terrible things are in the news and no one cares. I don’t know which is the worst. “
Ai’s late father, Qing, a poet, was exiled to Xinjiang during the Mao Cultural Revolution, where he cleaned communal toilets for five years and, according to his son, lost his sight in one eye due to poor nutrition. His poems were not published until after his “rehabilitation” in 1979.
Ai has no doubt that the fate of Hong Kong is to be absorbed on the Chinese mainland, regardless of the will of its people. “Maybe it will become like Xinjiang or maybe it will become like Shanghai. It will not become what the protesters hope for. “
Few would doubt this analysis. Since the events described in the beetle took place, many of the activists interviewed in Ai’s film – including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam – have been imprisoned for their protest roles. In June, China imposed a national security law. Since then, pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from elected positions, and academics have been forced out of universities.
You moved from Berlin to Cambridge in September last year so that your 10-year-old son, Lao, could have a better education and be spared the racism he says he lived in Germany. “I’m glad I left Berlin for a friendlier environment.” He admires Britain for condemning Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong protesters and for providing refugees with a safe haven. “I think it’s a very important gesture. Maybe half a million people would qualify. In the long run, it’s really worth it, because they are very nice, very well educated professionals who will appreciate what the UK would do for them. “
So far, Cambridge is working for Ai with its fingers crossed. “I like talking to people who give you time to explain, and the British people are patient about that. I need some comfort. I’ve had enough toughness in my life. “
This is an understatement. Raised in harsh provincial exile, he became an uncritical critic of the authoritarian regime as an artist and activist. As a result, he was imprisoned, refused travel to China and his passport was revoked. In 2015 he left his homeland without expecting to be allowed to return.
The manufacture of the beetle was, as a result, a difficult business. He remotely directed, sending a team of filmmakers along with a war zone reporter to film in Hong Kong for six months. He later worked on the material in the UK. Will you ever be able to return to China? “I keep my hopes up, but I have no illusions about my chances.” He would like to visit his mother, who is 88 years old, although he talks to her every day.
For all the constraints imposed by exile and the pandemic, Ai worked hard during the blockade. The Beetle is one of the three films he made this year. Vivos, released in January, tells the story of 43 students who were attacked in Mexico in 2014 and never saw them again. The coronation, his portrait of Wuhan during the pandemic, was released for fine reviews in September. Each of these films bears the marks of Ai’s consciousness. He says he became a proper artist only in 2009, when he covered the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich with backpacks to say the following words in Chinese: “All I want is to let the world remember that he lived happily ever after. These were the words a mother said to Ai when she investigated the disappearance of 5,335 schoolchildren in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake in the region.
Why are you doing such political work? “I only make films and art about things that fascinate me intellectually and emotionally, I like to understand more. To do this, you need to set some obstacles to overcome. Or get in trouble. That helps you learn. ”