Friday, December 15, 2017

Selected by Ai Weiwei: We the Workers

Nearly all of the subjects of Huang Wenhai’s latest documentary were arrested in a massive round-up of labor activists in December 2015. Several were also arrested during Huang’s extended 2009-2015 shoot. Huang nearly shared their prisoner-of-conscience experience first-hand, but he left just before the state security police arrived one fateful night. The resulting film is as real as real gets. Produced by Zeng Jinyan, who previously helped her former partner, Hu Jia document their term of house arrest in Prisoners of Freedom City, Huang’s We The Workers (trailer here) is a vividly personal indictment of Chinese labor exploitation, which screens this Sunday in DC, as part of a series of films curated by Ai Weiwei.

Peng Jiayong looks like a schlubby sitcom character, but there is nothing funny about it when he is beat up by thugs or arrested and held incommunicado by the cops. The working-class laborer-turned labor rights advocate is not the most sophisticated or disciplined organizer at the Panyu Workers’ Centre, but there is no denying his dedication. In contrast, clean-cut Deng Xiaoming is an earnest young activist, who could have come from central casting. Unfortunately, the beleaguered Deng is often forced to mediate conflicts within his own family when he is not risking life and limb in the field.

We will watch them fight the good fight over the course of several years. Both will endure considerable stress and harassment, but Peng bear the most physical violence. Sometimes it comes from goons hired by factory owners, but it is probably more frequently the police who are violently targeting the activists. Apparently, the cops often launch attacks following the Workers’ Centre’s victories, out of retribution, even though the owners are by then inclined to let things be.

Many of the activists find it prudent to relocate their offices every month. Even the Panyu staff is forced to avoid their office space for months. When they finally sneak back in under the cover of night, the eerie vibe is unmistakable, like revisiting an old apartment from your childhood. In fact, Huang has a knack for making viewers feel things. He gives us a grim taste of Chinese factory conditions in an extended vérité prologue, while conveying a visceral sense of the constant fear surrounding the organizers’ work. They are not perfect. Frankly, at least one of the attorneys working with the Centre is a real blowhard (like most attorneys), but they all have real guts and commitment.

We the Workers (the way the film’s international festival title echoes the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble surely cannot be coincidental) has epic sweep, not necessarily in terms of its narrative (although plenty happens), but for the way it portrays a huge cross-section of China’s marginalized population. It is simultaneously a towering film and an intimate documentary. We the Workers is nearly three hours, but it nearly always makes good use of its time. Constituting some of the boldest, most humanistic nonfiction filmmaking of the year, We the People screens this Sunday (12/17) at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, as part of the “Selected by Ai Weiwei” sidebar to his Trace exhibition.