Artist and activist Ai Weiwei isn’t allowed to leave China, but that hasn’t stopped him from overseeing creative projects across the world: for example, he remotely co-designed the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London and planned his current ongoing @Large art exhibit at the infamous prison at Alcatraz Island. Now, he’s taking the scope of his work from afar a step further by directing part of a major film in Berlin—all from his desk in Beijing.
With the help of high-speed internet and Skype, Ai will be joining a host of critically acclaimed directors creating shorts for Berlin, I Love You, the next film in the star-studded “Cities of Love” series that includes New York, I Love You and Paris, Je t’aime. He’s working with an acclaimed team including German actor Til Schweiger (who is known for his role in Inglourious Basterds), producer and on-site director Claus Clausen (executive producer of The Messenger), and cinematographer Frank Griebe (from Run Lola Run).
The short film is a a very personal project for the artist for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that its star is Ai’s own six-year-old son, Ai Lao. The pint-sized budding actor currently lives in Berlin with his mother and the screenplay writer, Wang Fen. The story will be based on the boy’s real-life separation from his father, whose passport has been indefinitely confiscated from Chinese authorities.
We caught up with Ai for an interview to get more details and hear his thoughts on the project, including the main messages of the film and how his personal experience of separation from loved ones has influenced his work.
You’re directing a segment for the latest installment in the “Cities of Love” film series, which will take place in Berlin. What details, if any, can you share with us about the plot and characters?
This movie is a sequel to Paris, I Love You and New York, I Love You, so the basic structure of the movie is to invite 10 well-known directors to make a movie about one specific location. I was invited by the producer for this year’s Berlin, I Love You. Since my activities in past years have had so much to do with Germany, and also, I have my own studio being built in Berlin, and—even a stronger reason—my son and his mother have been staying in Berlin for the past five months, I think it gives me stronger feelings in relating to that city. I think it’s very natural that I would accept doing a part in Berlin, I Love You.
The movie is written by Ai Lao’s mom, Wang Fen. The story is basically about a young boy who discovers a city he has just arrived in, so the details are through the youngster’s eyes. At the same time, he’s cut off from home—where he comes from, which is China. Because I cannot travel—I still don’t have my passport in my possession—that gives a very unique condition as a backdrop. We try to communicate through the Internet, but at the same time, the Chinese Internet does not always work so well. Often it gets blocked and you don’t always have so strong a signal. All of that is really frustrating.
The film is about the relationship between the father and the son, and between technology and everyday struggle. It will come out a very short film, less than 10 minutes. That’s the basic structure of the movie.
I can’t tell too much because the movie is composed of several short stories. It’s very interesting, very sensitive. Even a short film can give a clear portrayal of the condition of separation—not only between father and son. In today’s world, from a wall to poverty, to political and economic reasons, there are so many situations that separate people.
How has your own personal experience affected the direction of the segment?
As a child, I grew up in a very difficult situation. I also had a period of separation with my parents, and had to be very independent, facing a very rough world. That makes a child grow up, and for better or for worse, you have to take responsibility and face reality. I think that makes a person emotionally stronger and can also make them more independent. When you’re emotionally stronger and more independent, you can make the decisions you think are necessary or important to you.
It’s a foundation of judgment. People learn from the kind of condition they’re in. People only make decisions when it’s needed; when they see there’s not enough help. Life is a teacher more than anything—than school, than family—because life itself is bigger. It’s very rich and it gives a very solid foundation.
When my parents had to go to Xinjiang, a very remote desert region, at the end of 1958, it would take days to travel. The area had no trains. They had to take all kinds of transportation. There was no real road, so they could not take me. I was just one year old so they left me with a maid in Beijing. I stayed behind for two years without them.
I think by this time, I realized we had to be separated. Even when that young, you understand you’re not going to get what you want. There are so many other reasons beyond your understanding. They’re reasons beyond the control of your parents. They’re victimized; they really feel sad because it’s their children they had to leave behind. Throughout history there are many examples of this; think back on what the Nazis did, what the Cultural Revolution did to people. Today, the disasters happening in the Middle East, in Syria, millions of people are in the same condition. The Korean situation is still with us. This is a human tragedy but it’s our reality.
Of course, Ai Lao is in a very modern society with good protection, with no economic crisis. Still, it doesn’t solve the emotional and physical connections—the parenthood, the teaching, all those things lacking that cannot be solved by the Internet. You don’t have much temperature or texture through that. It’s on the screen.
What is it like to direct a film exclusively over Skype?
I think it’s wonderful. It makes you really think about what’s important in directing a film. Film is a product of collected wisdom and effort. Every second counts. It’s an art about time. It’s very interesting to see what is necessary and what is not when directing from a distance.
Also, the team is the most important. I’m very fortunate to have Ai Lao as an actor. He is very mature and is a natural actor. Since he’s so young I was very surprised. His mom, who is the scriptwriter and who knows movies very well, is a great help. The producer and on-site director, Claus Clausen, has so skillfully put everything together. Not to mention the very best cinematographer, Frank Griebe, who was the cinematographer for Run Lola Run. We also had the star of Germany, Til Schweiger. He’s very good. I watched them all perform and it was very interesting to see it from this side of the screen.
Are there any major challenges?
The challenges are like that of any art. It’s not like creating a drawing. When you make a drawing, the challenge is between your hand, your eye, the pencil, and the paper. This is between how to carry out your emotions and ideas through another person, through another lens, through another sound, color, and actors. Everybody making the film has to share a similar state of mind and that has to be caught on film.
Your son will be playing himself in the film. How did you explain the purpose of the project to him?
I told him—he’s so smart—he said, “Daddy, you don’t have to work so hard. I can make money for myself.” He was only five, so his mom asked him, “Why do you worry so much about your father?”
He said, “Do you remember the day when I cried after Skyping with him?” His mother remembered and told him so. He said, “From that day, I knew he will never come out. The police will never give back his passport.” A child trying to imagine the world, and trying to find out “how,” and “why” has to accept those conditions that were forcefully given to him.
I told him, “Maybe the film will help not only me, but many people like you.” But more interesting, it’s not about complaining about the situation but, rather, to discover, to have this miracle happen—to be creative under these kinds of conditions. That’s the only revenge you can have—to become more creative and to get more freedom.
Will you be acting in it as well? Why or why not?
I will have maybe a few seconds but it’s not necessary for the story.
Even though you can’t leave the country, you’ve worked on other major projects remotely such as your @Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz and the Serpentine pavilion in London with Herzog and de Meuron. In this day and age, what are the ways in which technology can overcome political restrictions? What are technology’s limitations in this regard?
I think these restrictions around me try to stop my voice, but the voice is really an inner need. It’s part of life. That cannot be stopped if life is not stopped. I will always find a way to express myself.
The real limitation in life is life itself. Life is very short and our understanding about life is limited. It doesn’t matter how successful we are or how badly we think we are beaten by life but, still, there is always hope. The sun is always shining and the snow comes quietly. When spring comes, the green will be there. All these things we can appreciate and can give us confidence.
Humans design all technology. Those designs come from our desire for greater freedom. Without that desire, there is nothing in the world.
How does the Chinese government respond to your involvement in these international projects?
I don’t think they pay much attention to these things. I’m talking about something quite abstract in general—the human condition.
What do you think the reaction to this film will be in China?
I don’t think they will care so much.