I was moved by a video, posted on Facebook a few days ago by Greg Laemmle. Here it is—watch it, it’s short and important: https://youtu.be/2WY1Zm3FouU. It’s both an honest and a cleverly crafted explanation of what’s necessary for cinemas, especially beloved specialty houses like Laemmle Theatres, to survive in a COVID-19 world. As the Laemmle Theatres are and continue to be, this video’s creation was a family affair; Greg and one of his sons collaborated to make it entertaining, without diminishing the straightforward seriousness of the message, addressing rumors about sale of the theatres.
One way you can help sustain Laemmle Theatres now, while movie houses still can’t open, is by watching the films they’re showing via Virtual Cinema. In this case, I’ll direct you to one, in particular, that resonates with our times:
FEEL LIKE YOU’RE IN PRISON?
If quarantine feels imprisoning, or you think a mask is a violation of your liberty, get outside your head for about 80 minutes. Watch one of the most famous artist/dissidents in the world tackle the topic of human rights in his 2014-2015 exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.
The documentary “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly” documents behind the scenes activity as the idea for the prison exhibition is hatched, fleshed out, brought to life and then seen by more than 90,000 viewers, who in turn wrote thousands of postcards of support to many of the prisoners of conscience whose portraits are a centerpiece. The postcards were pre-printed with artistically-rendered images of their home countries’ native birds and plants, representing an aspect of freedom and remembrance.
Ai Weiwei did all this without ever leaving China, because after having been arrested in 2011 for human rights activism, he was held incommunicado for 81 days; following his release, he was not allowed to travel and was subjected to government surveillance for four years.
He created it from afar, never visited Alcatraz, and never saw this exhibition in person.
Both for the exhibition and the documentary, Ai Weiwei collaborated with first-time filmmaker and friend, Cheryl Haines. Haines is the executive director and chief curator of the FOR-SITE Foundation which was able to secure Alcatraz for this landmark exhibition focused on fundamental human rights.
With his own experience to draw upon, Ai Weiwei focused on unjustly imprisoned men and women—prisoners of conscience—across the world. He filled the prison’s bleak and crumbling cells with sounds of their voices, their music, news clips, representing their cases.
In another space, a vast concrete hall lined with pillars, he created large portraits, rendered in Legos, of dozens of prisoners who dared to speak political truth to power or were incarcerated in intolerable conditions based on religious or racial discrimination. Laid out across the concrete floor between the pillars, the collective effect is powerful.
Another hall features an enormous traditional Chinese dragon kite, whose body is made up of numerous individual kites suspended from the ceiling, snaking around the enormous space of the New Industries Building, featuring quotations from imprisoned or exiled activists, including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden and Ai Weiwei himself.
The quotations are about what freedom, liberty and privacy mean to these prisoners/exiles. While the dragon traditionally represents strength and power, the artist sees it as a symbol of the power that individuals can exercise to bring about change—because the mind cannot be imprisoned.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of the exhibition was on the prisoners whose portraits are featured. We hear from some who have been released.
Once viewers passed through the multiple halls, they came into a room where thousands of postcards were available to send personal messages to many of the prisoners. Ai Weiwei understood the effect that isolation can have on a prisoner, and these postcards—often delivered, sometimes not—showed up in bundles of dozens, even hundreds to lift their spirits by letting them know the world has not forgotten them.
The unfolding of the exhibition via this documentary is inspiring, demonstrating how powerful art can be as a mechanism of activism and how expansive, evocative and expressive Ai Weiwei’s imagination is.
If Ai Weiwei was kept incommunicado for 81 days, surely you can spare 80 minutes to watch “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly” via Laemmle’s Virtual Cinema. Select “Los Angeles” and “Laemmle Theatres” here for tickets: http://firstrunfeatures.com/aiweiwei_playdates.html.
IF YOU MISS BOOKS
Just a reminder, now that I have three in my hot little hands, that Santa Monica Public Library has a new pickup service at the Main Library. Just put your books on hold online, you’ll get an email telling you when they’re ready, then make a pickup appointment, and call to let them know when you’ve arrived for contactless delivery.
And, long ago on KCRW, we broadcast a literary salon called Spoken Interludes, created by Delauné Michel. Now she and her husband have created an online platform to connect readers, authors and event organizers in a simple space, called Book YaYa.
Delauné is presenting a series of virtual events online on Wednesdays at 5 pm Pacific time. Humorist, writer and radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh appears on July 22, reading from “The Madwoman and the Roomba: My Year of Domestic Mayhem,” her latest.
Upcoming Wednesdays feature Joanna Hershon reading from her new novel St. Ivo, James Beard Award-winning chef, cookbook author and Tony/Grammy winner Alexander Smalls, reading from his “Meals, Muses & Music: Recipes from African American Kitchen” on Aug. 5.
Find the Spoken Interludes lineup and reserve a space here: https://spokeninterludes.com/reservation/. It’s only $10 per event with all proceeds going to the author And if you’re a writer or event producer, check out https://www.bookyaya.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.