In our hearts, we all crave freedom. The desire for freedom takes up permanent residence in a corner of our beings, bumping up to the desire for security. In the heart of the artist, the need for individual freedom is more often than not stronger than the need to assimilate into the group and be protected by its numbers and conservative values.
I recently watched two documentaries in which are tied together the themes of freedom of expression and repressive government. Both are told from the point of view of a strong individual, motivated above all by the quest for justice and the necessity to defend the rights of others at great personal risk. The first of the two films “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” by filmmaker Alison Klayman follows international Chinese dissident / art celebrity Ai Weiwei, son of renowned Chinese poet Ai Qing, persecuted under the cultural revolution in the 1960’s. Ai Weiwei is best known for his collaboration in the design of the “Birdsnest” stadium featured at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
While Ai Weiwei could have easily rested on his laurels as an internationally celebrated contemporary artist, living a life of both comfort and luxury, he has chosen to use his notoriety to promote increased civil liberties and personal freedoms for his fellow citizens. Although progress has been made in these areas in recent years, freedom of expression is still not to be taken for granted in China. During the course of the film, Ai Weiwei travels internationally, works with his many assistants to create impressive works of contemporary art, is beaten by the police, has his web-site shut down by the government, is supported by fans world-wide on Twitter, is under constant surveillance both by camera and under-cover police officers, disappears for 81 days (being held and interrogated by the police), has his studio which the government commissioned condemned and destroyed… As an artist and as a human being, Ai Weiwei expresses his opinion that art is a tool to promote awareness and the necessity to protect human individuality and the right of each of us to create without censorship or restriction by the cultural group in which we live.
Ordinary people, inspired by the outspoken courage of this artist, who stands up for his principles, continue to support Ai Weiwei on-line and in person. The film portrays the artist not only as an icon, but as an ordinary human being as well, with flaws and vulnerabilities. We see him take care of his one and a half year old son, born from a relationship with a woman who is not his wife. When the artist is questioned about the child and the betrayal of his wife, he admits his fault, but he is dedicated to the child, and he spends time with him each day. We even see the baby and mistress in London at the Tate Modern preparing the exhibition “Sunflower Seeds”, in which over 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds cover the floor of the exhibition space.
In the second film I watched, “Five Broken Cameras”, was made by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi. The film is an autobiographical story of a Palestinian farmer (Emad Burnat), his family and close friends, and their non-violent resistance to the Israeli settlers and army as the West Bank settlements increasingly encroach on their land. The village is visibly old, beautiful, built with and into the land. The people from the village of Bil’in live from the harvest of olives, grown from the ancient twisting trees that they visibly are connected to and love. As Emad’s children are born and grow up, we see this beautiful land being raped by the concrete high-rise buildings as the earth is torn up for their construction. The film is touchingly beautiful and full of grace. Emad comments that it is challenging to make something positive from anger. We see his youngest son, Gibrel hand an olive branch to an armed Israeli soldier, an iconic image in counterpoint to the constant violence. A very personal record of Emad’s family life, the film is not meant to be objective, as only the point of view of the village inhabitants and their friends are represented. Yet in so many ways, this personal record of village life is poignant and informative.
As I watched this film, I wondered why so many people feel justified in taking from others by force what they want for themselves, why the physically strong or financially superior do not feel the imperative to share, to respect others. Why must people around the world continue to subjugate and dehumanize, creating enemies where a threat to personal or collective desires is represented in an opposing will or desire? The simple people who made this film do not want anything other than what they already had – a beautiful and peaceful place to live in which the land gave them its fruits in exchange for their labor. Emad Burnat, his friends, and brothers persist in demonstrating peacefully, and their love of life is evident in this film. Emad purchases his first camera in order to film the development of his children, and he records the growth of the West Bank settlements and the conflict between the Palestinian farmers and the Israeli settlers and soldiers concurrently with that of his children. The title “Five Broken Cameras” is a literal description of this personal history and a testimony to Emad’s persistence in documenting the struggle of his village to promote freedom of expression and peaceful revolution. It is a beautiful film and bears witness to what is finest in the human spirit. It also becomes clear in this film that when the feminine qualities of nurturing, love, patience, listening have become so little cherished throughout the entire world, that often the masculine qualities of action, construction, being strong in the world have lost their heroic qualities and tend to become merely destructive.
The desire for freedom and the need to create are human qualities that transcend all restrictions on human behavior, ie nationality, culture, religion, even gender. The human spirit is designed to soar, to dream, to create, to play. Artists and creators of all genres are here on Earth to remind all humans of our divine nature – as creators – in opposition to the force of fear which holds us back, and makes us conform. The pressure to remain silent, to conform is present everywhere. It is in our work places, in our homes, our schools, in our governments, in every country around the world. Those in leadership positions almost always seek to silence or frighten those working under them rather than encouraging active participation, creative disagreement, and empowerment. Oppression is not limited to China or the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the opposing forces of creativity and conformity will always co-exist. We are all certainly affected by the tension between these two forces. When the artist in each of us is crushed, we lose the spark of desire that makes us embrace life, even when the darkness of oppression threatens to annihilate our spirits.
As artists, let us continue to encourage others to express themselves, to face up to the fear of exclusion from the group, to face up to the possibility of personal extinction, until humanity grows enough to rejoice in the being of each and every face and voice on earth for being unique – and nothing else.