The news cycle giveth and the news cycle taketh away. Just when Laura Poitras posted her latest piece of Edward Snowden brand management, news reports suggest he may have indeed done the one thing he absolutely, positively promised never to do: share sensitive intelligence with the Russian and Chinese governments. One wonders what Ai Weiwei would have to say about that? Regardless, it certainly casts his appearance in Poitras’s short in a different light. Freshly released as part of the New York Times Op-Doc series, Art of Dissent is one of two relatively recent short films available online, featuring Teacher Ai, the second being Jason Wishnow’s The Sand Storm, which can be found on Fandor.
Ai Weiwei’s Art of Dissent is one of his more conceptual works, conceived in collaboration with Wikileaks’ Jacob Appelbaum. As Poitras records the process, the artist and the activist replace the stuffing inside thirty plush pandas with shredded Snowden documents. Of course, Appelbaum points out the choicer passages, but there is no word whether information on Chinese dissidents like himself are included—and certainly not whether they were turned over to his Communist tormentors.
Poitras does indeed include descriptions of Ai’s punishing period of captivity, but Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei: the Fake Case is a far better source for insight on this period. Although Ai emerges as a principally consistent critic of intrusive government, he may later feel uncomfortable embracing Snowden and wikileaks. Unfortunately, it is easier to assume the worst about Snowden now, because Poitras refused to ask hard questions of him when she had the chance, like what does he think of the human rights records of his host countries and what role if any did the FSB play in bringing his girlfriend to Russia? By sticking to softballs, she did Snowden a grave disservice.
Wishnow’s The Sand Storm is also somewhat topical, since it depicts Ai as a Chinese water-smuggling Mad Max. Frankly, Wishnow’s film looks so much like a proof-of-concept short, it ought to end by saying: “to be continued with your money.” Regardless, Teacher Ai brings a quiet mischievousness to the proceedings as the dystopian lone wolf, while Bai Yao is absolutely terrific as the betrayed wife he takes under his wing. It would be great to see more of her and Ai in this world, but one wonders if his schedule (or the authorities) would permit feature-length shoots.