An account of three Movies that Matter: Freedom of Expression and the State

by Fiana Gantheret

Movies that matter festival

A small entry into often incredibly violent worlds. That is what the Movies that Matter Festival offers. A regular feature in The Hague for some years now, the festival took place this year between 20 and 26 March 2014. This post focuses more particularly on three movies that featured in the selection: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War by Jesse Acevedo, and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case by Andreas Johnson.

The focus of these three movies is freedom of expression and its violation by the state apparatus. The main characters fight to speak out, either about the state itself, or at least without any censorship. The latter is of course linked to the former, given that being able to speak without limits in the societies depicted in the movies entails saying Fuck Off to the system. The means to reach that goal: art. Punk music and performance in Pussy Riot; rap music in Rap is War; and conceptual art – photography, sculptures, installations – in The Fake Case.


Pussy Riot is about the trial of three members of the russian punk feminist movement Pussy Riot created in 2011: Nadejda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch. The three women were arrested after having staged a performance on 21 February 2012 on the soleas of the Cathedral Christ the Savior in Moscow to protest the support of the leader of the Orthodox Church to Vladimir Putin during the elections. They were sentenced on 17 July 2012 to two years imprisonment. On appeal, Ekaterina Samoutsevitch’s sentence was suspended.

In The Fake Case, the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei is under house arrest following 81 days of solitary confinement on charges of tax evasion, online dissemination of pornography and bigamy. The Chinese authorities have initiated proceedings against Ai Weiwei for tax evasion by his company, the Fake Cultural Development firm, his wife Lu Qing’s  firm in which Ai Weiwei is employed as a consultant. As put by Ai Weiwei in the documentary: It is a fake case against a Fake company, except that the company is real. What is left is real persecution for political motives based on pieces of art work considered by the government to be inappropriate for Chinese society. In the documentary, Ai Weiwei is seen struggling with post traumatic stress symptoms, as well as with questionings about his own activism and how far he can take it now that he has a family, a wife and a son.

Rap is War is an undercover documentary movie about the two members of Los Aldeanos (The Villagers), a Cuban underground rap duo. Those who listen to them on the radio or during their rare appearances on stage do it at their own risk. In parallel to getting to know Bian and Aldo, the two singers, we hear about the Cruz brothers, arrested for having listened to the songs of Los Aldeanos. The songs describe contemporary Cuba: the poverty – sometimes extreme -, the censorship, the travelling ban imposed on Cubans, the hundreds that died and are dying today trying to circumvent that ban…

What you say?

What the artists say, the state does not hear. To what they say, the authorities respond by claiming legal violations – real or imagined : sacrilege in the case of the members of the Pussy Riot, tax evasion in the case of Ai Weiwei, and treason in the case of Los Aldeanos. The latter charge is circular: putting someone in jail because they denounce the fact that nothing can be said.

The answer by the state or by other citizens also sometimes reveals the emotions at stake: a Christian orthodox cross-bearer describes the Pussy Riot members as “deranged vaginas”. What they see are unbalanced women, not angry and desperate human beings fighting to be able to speak their truth. Bian and Aldo in Rap is War are aware of the state of mind of some of their compatriots: People look at what we do and think we are the problem. Members of their family are concerned and are therefore uncomfortable with the contents of the songs. Aldo’s very old grant aunt: The songs are too much to handle. They scare me. Bian’s father, Ernesto: Fighting the system only brings problems.

During their trial, the members of Pussy Riot declared, when being asked whether they understood the charges being brought against them: I don’t understand the political side of the charges. I don’t understand how statements about my motives can be made. The Prosecutor in its final statement: Freedom of expression must be done legally. It is like a dialogue where nobody listens.

What they say?

Ai Weiwei is clear about the aim of his artwork: there is no aim. The perverse intentions attributed to him by the Chinese authorities do not stand: how can nudity be inappropriate ? His artwork contains another truth than the one supported by the authorities, the truth of Ai Weiwei. Shared by a lot of people, who sent money to contribute to his 1.5 million dollars tax bill, or posted pictures of themselves naked on the net, in a tribute to Ai Weiwei being accused of indecency by the government.


One picture from the naked series


Work by He Yunghang in support to Ai Weiwei

Los Aldeanos: Our music is direct and harsh because it reflects our reality. Their reality, but mostly the reality of what the people endure. In Rap is War, Bian and Aldo speak about what Cubans are going through: As artists we want to change the world. They want to talk about invisible people, hidden by the authorities in fake military zones at the back of villages that look nice from the road. The Cruz brothers were arrested and sentenced in July 2011 to five years of prison for having listened to Los Aldeanos on the street. Aldo eventually wrote a song about them.

In the headquarters of Pussy Riot, four months after the arrests of Nadia, Katia, and Maria, we hear about the band’s intentions: denouncing Putin’s regime and the amount of human rights violations that go with it: We want to show our freedom. It is good for Russia’s development. We are not going to kill anyone, we use peaceful methods. As artists, our role is to change humanity, to be the voice of the voiceless. It is about actions, not talks or compromises. The performances are a form of political act. It is a political action using artistic means. In the face of the sentence, their artistic act seems small, absurd, as one puts it in her closing statement. Nadia sums it up to the press, while waiting for one of the hearings: I don’t want to be in prison for my beliefs, but I have to.

In these three cases, the system fears the sincerity that the artists represent. Their will is not to defy the system, it is to act according to their beliefs. Even after having been prosecuted and fearing for his family, Ai Weiwei feels the weight of the silence the government wants to impose on him: If I don’t show my voice online [through social networks or showing support to the exhibitions of his work made throughout the world] as I always believed, I will die. And this is true not only for artists, but for everybody.

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