Director of Oscar-Winning Snowden Documentary Debuts New Film Starring Ai Weiwei

Laura Poitras captures a five-day collaborative art project between the Chinese dissident and WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum

Artist Ai Weiwei and activist Jacob Applebaum shreadding NSA documents. (Image: Film still courtesy Praxis Films)

Artist Ai Weiwei and activist Jacob Applebaum shreadding N.S.A. documents. (Photo: Film still courtesy Praxis Films)

In April, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras was invited to Beijing to film a collaborative art project between two of the world’s most famous and controversial political dissidents: artist Ai Weiwei and activist Jacob Appelbaum. The film, titled The Art of Dissent, was created for Rhizome’s seventh edition of its annual Seven on Seven Conference in May, and premiered Tuesday online as part of The New York Times‘ Op-Docs series.

Ms. Poitras is best known for her film CITIZENFOUR, a profile of N.S.A. whistleblower Edward Snowden, which earned her an Oscar. The Art of Dissent is her first project since completing CITIZENFOUR. The film documents a collaborative art project between Mr. Ai, whose outspoken actions and artworks directed at the Chinese government have left him unable to leave China, and Mr. Appelbaum, a hacker affiliated with WikiLeaks, the Tor Project, and Mr. Snowden.

Each year for Seven on Seven, artists and technologists are paired together to create collaborative works. For their project, titled Panda-to-Panda, Mr. Ai and Mr. Appelbaum met for five-days at the artist’s Beijing studio and shred N.S.A. documents that were originally given to Ms. Poitras and Glenn Greenwald two years ago by Mr. Snowden. The shredded documents were stuffed inside 20 plush toy pandas, along with an SD memory card digital backup of the documents, and distributed to activists worldwide, including Julian Assange and Mr. Snowden.

“I see my art as a way of reminding people of certain facts,” said Mr. Ai to Rhizome back in April, with Mr. Appelbaum adding, “My one goal is that in 20 years time no one can say they didn’t know what was happening, so we’ll know who didn’t act to stop it.”

Ms. Poitras penned a short introduction to the film for The New York Times, where she stated, “As a filmmaker, and as a target of state surveillance myself, I am deeply interested in the way being watched and recorded affects how we act, and how watching the watchers, or counter-surveillance, can shift power.”

During filming, Mr. Ai and Mr. Appelbaum were also given cameras to document the work and each other. “Between their cameras and mine, we created a zone of hyper-surveillance,” wrote Ms. Poitras.

The film lasts just a little over nine minutes, and was executive produced by New Museum director Lisa Phillips and Dorothy Berwin. Viewers can watch it in its entirety on The New York Times’ website, here. 

Director of Oscar-Winning Snowden Documentary Debuts New Film Starring Ai Weiwei