Burning Man Documentary Sort of Like Burning Man Without the Dehydration

In most cases, people who regularly talk about Burning Man generally fall into four camps: people who have attended Burning Man and are obsessed with the transformative experience of the thing, people who went to Burning Man and hated it but still want to remind everyone that they went to Burning Man, dreamy-eyed college students who reeeeeaaallllyyyy want to go to Burning Man but, like, just need people to go with, and people who have never been to Burning Man but write eye-rolling blogs about it. But, whether due to the inherent weirdness of much of the experience, the intense visuals or the chance to exploit people on drugs, people also really love making documentaries about Burning Man. And you, too, can see the latest salute to the neon-and-nudity fantasyland at South By Southwest when Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter (Who Killed the Electric Car?) premiere Spark: A Burning Man Story, a behind-the-scenes look at the festival, focusing on organizers and repeat participants, and how their ideals and festival perceptions have shifted over time. One woman describes how the festival compelled her to learn how to weld; a gentleman with a beard extols Black Rock Desert as "a great venue to build giant stuff and blow it up."

This is hardly the first documentary that has gone behind the scenes or given outsiders a look at the gonzo civilization of Black Rock—Damon Brown released Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock in 2005 and followed the organizers, artists and participants for 18 months, from first-drawn plans to the final ember. But Spark, at least from first glance, not only has time and the dramatic increase in magnitude of the festival over time to contend with, but seems more about the physical, emotional and artistic toll putting this strange cultural camp together can have on a person. It’s a complicated piece, indeed, but looks intriguing, even if the thought of Burning Man makes you roll your eyes and also vomit. Spark premieres at SxSW on Sunday, March 10th, and you can check out a trailer below. 

[via LaughingSquid]

Director Alison Klayman on Her Debut Film, ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

In 2008, Alison Klayman was a recent college graduate living in China who agreed to help her friend make a short video accompanying a photo exhibition. Four years later, that short video has flourished into a full-length feature, documenting the work of one of the most prolific, controversial, and internationally known artists today. Her documentary film debt, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry blends the world of art and journalism as she gives the world a close look at Chinese artist/journalism/activist, Ai Weiwei. We chatted with Klayman about getting up close with Ai Weiwei, the limits of filming her subject, and what she hopes the audience gains from the film.

This is your first feature. How has it been promoting the film and seeing everyone’s reaction to it?
First of all, it’s definitely been as much a learning experience as any other part of making this film in the sense that I had no idea this whole stage in the process of distribution existed. I wish I could forget it right now so that the next time I make a film, I’m not thinking about this part of it; it was really nice that I had no idea. It’s a total privilege and thrill to be bringing the movie around and to share Ai Weiwei’s story. The real take-away for audiences is really to be inspired and to feel challenged about what, personally, should they do with their voice and what should they risk. There are some difficult things in this film, but I think ultimately the response is optimistic. Art and the internet really are powerful tools for our time, and if Weiwei can do what he does in China, what should I be doing? I think that’s very cool.

Your background was in journalism. Did you know you wanted to crossover into documentary films?
I was always interested in doing documentary films. When I graduated college in 2006, I did a lot of radio journalism, interned at NPR, and worked as a news anchor and produced different shows. I did a student short documentary in college, but I had never studied anything like that. And so my plan for how I was going to achieve all this started with going abroad. I ended up going to China after I graduated because my friend, who I did the student film with, had family in Shanghai. She was going and graciously allowed me to tag along.

So your choice to go there had nothing to do with politics initially?
I find it funny because it’s important to be totally honest about how this happened. I always say—not to make it sound like I had no clue about anything, but it’s more like having an open attitude—the truth is, if she had family from somewhere else, I might have ended up tagging along with her on a trip to, like, Latvia, but would I have stayed for four years and made a documentary? I don’t know. It was an incredible choice of a place to go. But I can’t take credit for thinking, China is the future so I should go there. I spent the whole summer reading a million books about China and I remember thinking if I could ever know this place well enough to contribute something to what’s out there in terms of reporting and books. But how does anybody do that? I remember that feeling. You just start by learning the language, having adventures, and seeing what the place is about.

How did you meet Ai Weiwei?
Again by a fantastic stroke of luck. My roommate, with whom I lived in Beijing in 2008, was curating an exhibition of his photographs for the gallery that she worked for. It was actually his photographs from the decade he lived in New York in the 1980s, which was as much a sort of historical archival task as it was an art curation. There were 10,000 photographs from this period in his life and she’d bring her work home with her and tell me about him and I would look through all the images and see all the protest images, Chinese artists hanging out, doing laundry, making art. It was incredibly captivating, and that body of work really helped so many more people understand him. Toward the end of the year my roommate said it would be really great to have a video to accompany the show and see how these photos were taken and to give a little more background. I had just bought a camera and she was like, Would you like to do the video? I had to go with the gallery team one morning to Weiwei’s studio and was introduced as the person who was making the video, so I was just kind of given this opportunity to not only meet him but also the license to be filming him. I never had to pitch myself or convince him. And he did like it, so I’m sure that did play some role in why he let me continue on.

What was your initial impression of him when you first met? Was he as you expected?
My initial impression was that he has a very commanding presence. I’ve worked on movie sets with Jackie Chan and Jet Lee and some famous Chinese actresses, and I found something not too dissimilar in terms that he’s sort of a big deal and has an entourage, but obviously it was in a very different context. I also saw that he has a really great sense of humor and likes to keep things, when he can, light and keep people at ease and himself entertained. At the same time, I was forewarned and I could see how it was possible if he didn’t like, for example, an interviewer that came along; he could be very intimidating and make an interviewer cry if he wanted to. I didn’t have an agenda in the questions I asked, and I genuinely didn’t know what the answer was to, like, “How are you so fearless? Why do you do the things you do?” We did get along really well.

How did you decide to make it a full feature?
Those initial couple weeks that I was filming for the purpose of this gallery show, we were covering so many things that didn’t fit into that assignment and talking about censorship in his blog and the ills of contemporary China. I remember talking to my parents and trying to explain this guy and saying I have all this material that I’m not going to get to use and I hope I get to use it.  I started to film more of his art, and I wanted to get those kind of personal family moments.

Was he open to letting you into his world?
I feel like I took cues from him that it was okay to keep going. The idea that I was really doing a feature film was almost acknowledged it first because he introduced me to someone as, “Oh that’s Alison, she’s making a documentary about me, she’s been filming for a long time.” After he did that I was like, “We can have that conversation—so I’m making a documentary, what expectations do you have?” Maybe there are instances where people make a documentary film where the subject isn’t doing a million interviews a day and directing their own camera crews and so they’re focused a little more on what the documentary filmmaker is doing with them. For me, it was nice; he really just let me show up, he wasn’t micromanaging what I was doing ever, and if I suddenly never showed up, he’d just be like, I wonder what happened to that girl? I think we had very little expectations for what the project was going to end up being. I talked to him on the phone two weeks ago and he was just, I think, marveling at how big this has gotten because it certainly was not what we expected. I know he wasn’t letting me be around because he thought this film is going to reach a lot of people—he already does so many things that reach so many people, so he wasn’t looking for an outlet. I think he really was just gracious enough to let me be around.

Did he ever ask you to stop filming?
It took me a long time to where he would let me film him with his son. I thought I would have to do the same thing to his mom, but I lucked out and she came to the house one day when I was there. I thought that might be something that I had to fight for; I got to meet her and, as soon as she was standing by herself, I ran over and started asking her questions because I wasn’t sure if he would then tell me later [not to]. The only time I can remember him saying [not to film] was if he was talking with someone about. So he was also aware that not everyone needs to be filmed all the time.

You did a really great job of being informative and telling his story, but there was a lot of heart to it and it was entertaining to watch. What did you gain the most out of meeting him and the whole process?
I definitely feel like I’ve been given solid proof of the power of art and cultural production to really have an impact of people’s ideas and outlook on life. I’ve been thinking about other artists, entertainers, comedians who are helping to try and push things forward and show a different view on the world and articulate that in an entertaining way. There’s one thing he told me that always stuck with me; he once told me a story about an instance where one of his videographers was in a situation where the police were stopping him from filming, and Weiwei asked, “When things were happening, did you take your camera out, did you get any footage?” And the guy said, “No, I was really worried that they were going to take the camera so I didn’t take it out.” And Weiwei said, “Well when that happens, it’s as if they already took it, if you’re not going to try, it’s like they already took your camera in the first place.” I feel like, for me, as someone who wants to do journalism and documentary film, that’s the ultimate lesson. If you don’t speak out because you’re afraid of something happening to you, then they’ve already silenced you. 

‘Death by China’ and ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’: Two Call-To-Action Documentaries

Ai Weiwei is the internationally artist, prankster, architect, sculptor, photographer, social and cultural critic, curator, internet agitator and Twitter activist who was arrested by Chinese authorities and held for over three months in 2011 after a life-time of government harassment and a childhood filled with memories of his father’s own persecution the very same year he was short-listed for Time’s “Person of the Year.” His arrest caused a world-wide fervor, especially since Weiwei had been blogging and Twitter-documenting this pestering, stalking, annoyances, and, finally, in the span of a few year’s time- his eventual beating, house arrest, video spying, studio razing and eventual imprisonment by the Chinese government.

Here is a truly gifted artist going beyond the actual confines of his talent, to risk his life, literally, to make China a place where his toddler son may be truly safe to grow up inside of. And the beautiful thing is, as this masterful, all-access documentary by American journalist Alison Klayman demonstrates in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Weiwei is slowly igniting the fuse that Communist China desperately wants to be seen snuffed out at all costs, among all walks of its people living in the “Republic.” And others are learning how, when and where to light it, emboldened by Wei and other fellow activists and artists. They have made this great discovery and followed them, mainly, online.

The film starts in Weiwei’s sparse, grounded, spacious concrete studio. There, Weiwei entertains a mélange of playful cats, young, bold Chinese volunteers and activists who are busy making phone calls and emailing away as Weiwei prepares for two major art shows simultaneously- one at the prestigious Tate Museum in London. (“I am asking everyone for their ideas,” he jokes pseudo-playfully, procrastination showing as the shows’ openings loom close by.)

We learn about his varied projects and his hands-off, punk rock attitude towards the Chinese government (a series of photographs encourages others to express the sentiment “Fuck the Homeland,” middle-finger raised in anger, Weiwei’s gentle, Mona Lisa smile playing upon his lips.) Much of Wei’s art is conceptual, and he has other artists and artisans doing the actual construction, although a friend and fellow artist assures us on-camera that Weiwei can build anything. One project was an Internet list of over four thousand names of young students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, because of poor school construction, the Chinese authorities never admitting this fact.

We learn about his family’s life-long persecution, how he spent many of his adolescent years alongside his father, slaving away in a labor camp. Klayman shows Weiwei’s bohemian youth when he lived in Manhattan during the eighties, how New York shaped his artistic sensibilities while allowing himself to feel what being this free really meant, and what it trulyfelt like.

It is completely enlivening to see an actual revolutionary at work, and, it must be said, having that person fulfill your grandest expectations to the utmost. Weiwei comes across a strange mixture of Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, and the Dalai Lama—a pretty tall order, and the perfect concoction to make one an international icon. But the artist who helped design and then thoroughly denounce his own Olympic “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, after accusing the government of ousting the locals and forcing “smiles” and happiness on the faces of miserable Chinese citizens, Weiwei is shown to us by the director full of the great contradictions only a true artist can endure with any panache. He has both a loving wife and mistress by his side, a profound fear and courage about his own activism (often expressed by him in the very same sentence,) and the conflicting love/hate feelings about his origin and birthplace.

The most riveting part of the film is how Ai Weiwei uses the internet to not only engage the world about China’s profound corruption and truly vile disrespect of its own people, the environment and certainly the Chinese quality of life, but how often and where, and with what great courage, efficiency, savvy and provocation. When Chinese police beat Ai Weiwei after forcing themselves into his hotel room, Ai manages to actually catch it on video with his cell. We get to see it, too, along with the rest of the world, who first saw it first on his Twitter feed. (The Chinese government eventually blacked and disabled Ai’s active blog.) Ai suffered a brain hemorrhage from this single, near-devastating blow to the head. And, in a way, so does every Western viewer suffer a hearty blow: It makes every complaining, niggling little thing you ever said aloud or wondered about the Internet disappear into thin air. And makes you treasure the gift of free speech in a way you will never forget.

China makes another devastating appearance in a truly life-changing, mouth-dropping documentary film, Peter Navarro’s Death by China, after his book by the same name. Narrated by Martin Sheen, (when is he going to President, by the way?), produced, written and directed by Navarro, the film grabs you by the throat and never lets go, and your mind simply reels along with it. Compiled so a sixth grader could understand Chinese-American trade relations, yet literally packed with frightening information, the film explores our dependency on goods made exclusively in China, the soon-to-be-death of US manufacturing, and a government that is so corrupt, so uncaring, so authoritarian- to call them dictators almost gives them too much credit. What we have here is a nation that is making US middle citizens mere custodians (with their consumerism and few remain corporate jobs) to giant, multi-national US corporations.

Yes, we have heard this all before, and, naturally, it is quite easy to pass from logic into hysteria over this very fiery issue. But watch this movie, and you will, in turn, start glowing with a newfound, hit-on-your-head awareness. It’s so simple, it seems almost stupid: How do Republicans, conservatives, Democrats, any CEO, Board of Directors, thinking American, really-justify turning over the manufacture of their goods to a purely (no matter how anyone spins it) and deeply communist country? The film also highlights how our jobs and livelihoods are now decidedly and continuously shipped overseas by American companies (both gargantuan and mid-sized), as we continue our over-spending and shopping at Walmart, Costco, Apple….a list that is endless and scary in its comprehension. Did you know, for example, that not a single brand of cell phone or laptop is made in the US any longer? As the wife of one of the interviewees points out, it is impossible to find a microwave, nor a single household good that is not “Made in China.” We are reminded, of course and more than once, that it was Bill Clinton who pushed the signing of the World Trade Organization’s agreement with

China. But this film is going way beyond partisan lines here. In Death by China, we are all guilty, every single last, iPhone-toting, HD-watching, 99Cent Store-slumming one of us. “You have to choose between your company or your country!” decries proud Brian O’Shaughnessy, Chairman of the still standing, US-based Revere Copper. The film opens August 17. Miss it if you dare.

LCD Soundsystem Shares Clip From Biopic

On July 18, Shut Up And Play The Hits, a documentary about New York’s beloved electro party band LCD Soundsystem will open for one night only in theaters around the country. (Check out a list of participating cinemas here). 

But if you need a little something to tide you over—something other than listening to the band’s albums on repeat for days at a time—today’s your lucky day. A clip from the film has found its way online, thanks to Pitchfork.tv, and shows the band playing fan favorite “Dance Yrself Clean,” from last year’s album This Is Happening, at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. It was, in fact, the band’s final show, which also serves as a linchpin for the (totally awesome, we’ve seen it) movie. 

The release of the film brings up all sorts of burning questions about what LCD frontman and mastermind James Murphy will do with himself now that the group has been dismantled. One possibility: barista.

After the film’s screening at Sundance, Murphy—who spends a lot of time in the film making coffee—told New York Magazine, “"For my birthday, my girlfriend got me a training course with the world champion. That’s what I’m going to do when I get back to London.”  

Murphy also revealed that he was planning to develop his own blend of java, but wouldn’t go into detail.

"I can’t talk about that because I’m still in negotiations," he said. "I love that we’re here and talking about a film, but I’m like, ‘I can’t really talk about the coffee.’”