The fight for free speech: Two variations

For some people free speech is little more than the right to grumble about the government around the water cooler (if you still have a job in this economy), and after my recent fight with a rogue HOA board of directors, I know that most people aren’t willing to fight for their First Amendment rights. Friday, (3 August 2012) two movies open up at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 that look at two very different battles to protect free speech:  “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Big Boys Gone Bananas.”

Ai Weiwei is a now 54-year-old contemporary artist who has created sculpture, installations, photographs and film as socio-political criticism. Living under Communist Chinese rule, he’s not suffering from some vague angst and striking out against the past, a nebulous establishment or an older rigid generation. Although he collaborated with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron for the design of the Beijing National Stadium that was constructed for the 2008 Olympics, he has dared to openly criticize the government, often resorting to social media. His medium of choice: Twitter.

Yes, tweeting can be a source of protest, now linking birds with peace and provocative political protest as opposed to a lisping cat called Sylvester and a yellow bird named Tweetie.

First-time director Alison Klayman was a journalist in China and her background and access to Ai Weiwei give this documentary depth and sensitivity. As an artist, Ai Weiwei is about quick gestures, an aggressive  stances and an in-your-face attitude.

Yet the movie begins with the cuddly image of a man and his cats. Then our concept changes when we learns he has quite a few cats and dogs–we don’t see them all but the number might easily qualify him as an animal hoarder. Ai Weiwei is a solid looking man, thick in the middle and a bit out of shape. He suffers from diabetes and hypertension. He sports an unruly beard that is grizzling and his expression is one of guarded assertiveness.

Although he openly criticized the Beijing Olympics, his opinions were mostly reported by sources outside of Mainland China according to Evan Osnos, The New Yorker China correspondent.

“Why I’ll stay away from the opening of the Olympics. When I helped conceive Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, I wanted it to represent freedom, not autocracy: China must change. (7 August 2008 in The Guardian).”

Yet compare that to all the celebrity gossip and nationalistic medal celebrations surrounding the Beijing Olympics, his grumblings were a mere squeak in the distance.

Almost a year later, in May 2009, his project to create transparency in reporting the “tofu-skin” construction of schools that resulted in a disastrous death toll during the Sichuan earthquake had the Chinese government aggressively concerned.  Prior to the quake, Ai Weiwei explained he had added to his blog twice a day, but in the immediate aftermath he was speechless and didn’t write for a week.

Many of the deaths were children who died in poorly build government school, but the government wouldn’t say how many children died so he launched a citizen’s investigation. The death toll of the students was a secret, and he’s accused of being a Western spy for attempting to get information, but he felt his project was about “what deserves to be public, what belongs to the public. His blog becomes a documentary of the devastation.

His volunteers, many of them women, ask parents and schools for the names of the students and he ends up collecting 5,212 students names and birthdays which he posted list on blog on 12 May 2009 on the anniversary of the disaster. His blog was shut down

An estimated 70,000 people died in that earthquake.  Without his blog, Ai Weiwei turns to Twitter which can bypass great firewall of China.

Klayman shows us clips of the disaster as well as interviews with the volunteers and even brief recordings of officials responding to questioning. Ai Weiwei believes in showing the system as it works. Wisely, Klayman also shows us some of Ai Weiwei’s fellow artists and reminds us of the fate of certain dissidents.

Klayman also takes us with Ai Weiwei on a visit to New York. Ai Weiwei was one of the first wave of students who came to the U.S. to study. His companions during his time in New York talk about how Ai Weiwei used his camera as a diary and he seemed to have a fascination with protests. We can see the development of his work and his style of protest and cultural commentary.

I’ve never been a big fan of conceptual art, but watching how Ai Weiwei uses art in a communal effort to touch the minds and hearts of people in protest I was moved. His work is a strong argument for the importance of art as an expression of collective grief and dissatisfaction and this movie shows that free speech comes at a price that Americans rarely are asked to pay.

While perhaps our first reaction to “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” might be self-congratulatory in the vein that Americans can teach the world about democracy, the second movie, “Big Boys Gone Bananas” puts America to shame and suggests that Americans could learn a lot from the Swedish parliament.

The Swedish Parliament felt it was shocking that another country could attempt to interfere with the free speech rights of other nations. But let’s not put the cart before the horse.

Despite its light-hearted name, this documentary has few moments of humor, even when we seem to have been pushed into the absurd–a big name company based in Los Angeles, Dole, reaching out to Swedish journalists after the publication of a short online article and paying their lawyer to speak over the phone for 30-minutes?

How about sending a 200-page cease and desist request to the filmmaker Fredrik Gertten and his producer Margarete Jangard and then every major sponsor of the film festival where their documentary was supposed to have its world premiere? Unfortunately, we aren’t talking about a quaint little film festival, but one at the center of the film industry: The Los Angeles Film Festival.

Mostly we follow the journey of Gertten as he attempts to get his documentary on the 2007 Los Angeles Court case by Nicaragua banana farm workers against the Los Angeles-based Dole company shown while the Big Boys use their big pocket books to suppress the documentary. Dole lost the case in court, but a documentary about the case might attract more attention than a newspaper account of the case.

Gertten isn’t a commanding figure. He has longish brown hair and his expression grows gradually more tired as the film progresses. To his credit, he’s the calm in the middle of a storm, but one senses that Dole misjudged Gertten from the start. It’s shameful to see how the Los Angeles Film Festival caved into the pressure and there are names from people that I formerly respected who jumped on the Dole band wagon without seeing the film.

The movie clearly shows that PR firms can have a dark side, particularly when they espouse ideals such as “It’s easier to deal with a bad conscience than a bad reputation.” This is basically saying we can launch an impressive slur campaign against you so forget what your conscience is telling you is the right thing to do.

This isn’t the only time a banana company had to defend itself against the truth. The Cincinnatti Enquirer published an exposé on Chiquita, but the two reporters were caught in a hacking scandal. This was in 1998, long before the current Murdoch mess in England came to light. The truth of the reporters allegations wasn’t challenged, but their methods were and the movie quotes the New York Times as saying the resulting settlement basically gave Chiquita control over that newsroom for two decades. The article, as the poisoned fruit, was scrubbed from the newspaper’s archives.

As one journalist opines, “Journalism itself is under threat.”

However, hacking or illegal tactics by the documentary makers weren’t under fire. The attorney for the poor banana workers was labeled a fraud and the Gertten’s documentary was part of a defamation lawsuit by Dole. Although the LA Film Festival did screen the documentary, it took the movie out of all competition and screened it at UCLA James Bridges Theatre, requiring a disclaimer statement to be read prior to the screening.

While the timeline shows that these actions took place in less than a year (ending in November), the attorneys fees and costs that Dole was eventually required to pay Gertten, Jangard and the WG Film company was $200,000. I hope that this completely covered the costs for Gertten and Jangard.

Consider the financial fears and realities along with the emotional toll of Dole’s suppression campaign and you have the price of free speech. Then you must think of just how many people can afford  or are willing to pay it.

Both “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and “Big Boys Gone Bananas!” illustrate that the cost of free speech is high and that freedom should never be taken for granted, even in the United States.

Q&A Schedules for “Big Boys Gone Bananas!”

In Los Angeles:

Friday, August 3 – 7:50 p.m.

Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7

Filmmaker Ondi Timoner will join Fredrik Gertten and lawyer Lincoln Bandlow in conversation

Saturday, August 4 – 11:00 a.m.

Laemmle Monica 4 in Santa Monica

Filmmaker and Academy Award-nominee Lucy Walker will join Fredrik Gertten and lawyer Lincoln Bandlow in conversation

Saturday, August 4 – 5:30 p.m.

Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7

Filmmaker Elise Pearlstein (Food, Inc.) will join Fredrik Gertten and Lincoln Bandlow

Saturday, August 4 – 7:50 p.m.

Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7

Fredrik Gertten and Lincoln Bandlow will be in conversation

Sunday, August 5 – 11:00 a.m.

Laemmle Monica 4 in Santa Monica

Fredrik Gertten and lawyer Lincoln Bandlow in conversation

Sunday, August 5 – 5:30 p.m.

Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7

Fredrik Gertten and Lawyer Lincoln Bandlow


Director Alison Klayman at the Landmark in Los Angeles for “Ai Weiwei.”

Friday-Saturday, August 3-4

Q&A at 7:35 p.m.

Introduce the film at 10:05 p.m.

Landmark in WLA.

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