When disagreement is treason

History puts all totalitarian regimes face to face with the voice of one, and one single person, who stands and dares to say “ENOUGH”. It can be a group but because it panics, the system reacts by focusing on one individual. It is as if every tyranny needs a mirror to see how far it can take its absurdity and irrationality. The arrogance of a machine of oppression is confronted with a peaceful and weak individual. The stronger a dictatorship is, the more fragile it is. At the same time the weaker a rebel is, the more dangerous he/she is. We have known this since Gandhi stood up to the colonial British Empire. The world also witnessed this with the fight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist who defied the Junta of her country and who is now on her way to putting an end to a reign of decades of terror. That is how political heroes are born.

´The arrogance of a machine of oppression is confronted with a peaceful and weak individual. The stronger a dictatorship is, the more fragile it is. At the same time the weaker a rebel is, the more dangerous he/she is.´

As I write this, there are still people who engage in a fight for freedom. Two figures of resistance for culture and politics headline the news almost every day. One is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the other is the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Both of them are internationally recognised artists and symbols of their respective national glory. Ai Weiwei as a matter of fact, contributed to the construction of the Beijing stadium which hosted the Olympic Games of 2008. As for Jafar Panahi he is one of the symbols of contemporary Iranian cinema and probably one of the most successful Iranian filmmakers. At the same time both of them have always openly criticised the totalitarian regimes in their countries, thinking that their reputation offers them some form of protection and gives them a sense of responsibility towards their nationals.

They remind us of a very essential idea: the right of self-expression which is one of the basic rights for any human being. When an artist is prevented from exercising this right, it means that his influence reaches beyond the art world. It also means that he has pointed out something so central that it could threaten an order and rattle the strongest machinery of oppression. The absolute belief in freedom without any compromise is a permanent threat to any status-quo of conservatism and a permanent promise of change. This is what the famous saying generally attributed to Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo, means: “When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”. In such a situation, the system needs to defend itself, using what is supposed to be the most efficient tool: condemn the artist to silence and/or limit his movements. This can take shape in the Inquisition, the Bastille, the Gulag or any other kind of camp.

Take Galileo’s case. It shows how the more true, strong and just an idea is, the more dangerous it is to a well organised conservative and oppressive system, built on fixed and dogmatic ideas. Galileo’s theory on our the workings of our world was a serious threat to the Church’s cosmogony, and hence to its monopoly on political power. The reaction by the institution was so severe and ruthless that the Inquisition accused him of being “vehemently suspect of heresy”. At the end he was forced to abjure, deny his scientific conviction and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Did this prevent his ideas from having any influence on science and thought?

The Bastille, the Gulag and Labour Camps come in different forms. In the eighteenth century, French writers like Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade and other activists and enlightened personalities were put in the famous prison because they were considered too subversive. Antonio Gramsci spent many years in jail and died because of this imprisonment under the Italian fascist regime in the nineteen thirties. In all these cases we see how strong the link is between subversive ideas and the violence of repression.

We can say a lot about these kinds of measures to silence subversive voices such as the Soviet and Chinese Labour Camps for anti-regime intellectuals. They all have a common aspect: to silence the voice of a man he must be put away and his movements physically restricted. But this is against basic ethics, according to Umberto Eco who thinks that: “first and foremost we must respect the rights of the corporeality of others, which also include the right to talk and think. If our fellows (talking about Europeans) had respected these “rights of the body”, we would not have had the Massacre of the innocents, the Christians in the circus, Saint Bartholomew’s Night, the burning of heretics, the death camps, censorship, child labour in mines, or the rape in Bosnia ”. Nowadays indeed a lot of artists are facing a new kind of Bastilles and Gulags. Not only are they denied their right to express themselves but also to freely dispose of their movement and their corporeality.

´When an entire system attacks an individual it is a sign that it is scared, that it is aware of its weakness. But at the same time it is the sign that it realises that the rebel is right and that whether he remains silent or not, the change is not going to stop.´

Ai Weiwei and Jafar Panahi are living in this new kind of Bastille or Gulag. The arrest of the Chinese artist was part of Beijing’s crackdown after the call for a “Jasmine revolution” in China in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Many human rights activists, lawyers and bloggers were arrested. Ai Weiwei constantly spoke out about the human right’s situation in China. In the mid nineties, in a letter to the European parliament, he stated that the strategic partnership with the regime of Beijing should not be limited to trade and business but should also include negotiations about human rights and freedom. He never stopped being the voice of freedom in his country and openly attacked the regime’s repression of freedom. When he was arrested, the police declared that he was under financial investigation and that this had nothing to do with freedom of expression. Logically, this means that he should have been freed once he had paid his taxes. The fact is that he was never really freed but placed under house arrest and not allowed to travel out of China.

A similar scenario befell the Iranian filmmaker. He was arrested in a demonstration and his passport was revoked in the summer of 2009. In February 2010, he was not allowed to attend the International Film Festival in Berlin to take a seat on a panel on Iranian Cinema: Present and Future: Expectations inside and outside of Iran. Later he was arrested again on the accusation of making films against the Iranian regime and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. He was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and a twenty year ban on making films and giving any interviews or talking to the press. In other words, he was put in a kind of Bastille or Gulag by denying him any kind of expression. For an artist this is simply a sentence of symbolic death.

But art, like ideas, flies and goes beyond borders, according to Averroes. This idea is more apparent in such a globalised world. In spite of the ban on travel, the International Film Festival in Rotterdam organised (at the end of January) a retrospective to celebrate the work of the Chinese artist. A room was dedicated to him and called Café Ai Weiwei where many exhibitions and talk shows took place during the 41st edition of the festival. At the same time four of his video installations were screened: Beijing 2003, Beijing: the second ring, Beijing: the third ring and Chang’an Boulevard. A few days later the Berlin International Film Festival screened a documentary on the Chinese icon of the fight for freedom, made by the American filmmaker Alison Klaiman.

Since the arrest of Jafar Panahi, the world of cinema has started to move with the hope to put pressure on the Iranian regime. Petitions and letters have been sent  all across the world. The Berlinale of 2011 invited the filmmaker to join the Grand Jury but the Iranian regime remained imperturbable and the seat with the name of Panahi on it remained empty until the end of the festival. The same year another seat remained empty at the Cannes Film Festival when the Directors’ Fortnight decided to keep one of the theatre’s seats among the audience empty with the name of Jafar Panahi written on it. The same festival screened This is not a film which the filmmaker made clandestinely and sent to the festival in a non formal way together with Goodbye a film by another banned filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof. Later the same year, the French Cinematheque organised an integral retrospective of Panahi’s films.

Are these signs that the voice of freedom can never be completely silenced? Is it true that when the repression of a regime reaches its summit, it is a sign of weakness? We witnessed it in the Arab Spring; when the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes started killing people, this was the sign that they reached the point of no-return, the beginning of their end. When an entire system attacks an individual it is a sign that it is scared, that it is aware of its weakness. But at the same time it is the sign that it realises that the rebel is right and that whether he remains silent or not, the change is not going to stop.

And this is what happened with Galileo. After accepting the sentence of the Inquisition it seems that Galileo, while he was leaving the court, mumbled: “Nevertheless, it moves” talking about the fact that the earth is a sphere and that it moves around itself and around the Sun. Whatever men may say or do, the truth cannot be hidden forever. He was banned at the time. But in the nineteen nineties, Pope John Paul II apologised for the treatment of the scientist and admitted the errors committed by the Church at the time. Before the uprisings of the Arab Spring many activists and artists were saying that the time for change had come. They where repressed, jailed, silenced and attacked in their corporeality by way of exile and/or house arrest.  Four decades earlier, the 1970 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, the Russian Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, brought the Siberian Gulags to the world’s attention; the Soviet system of Labour Camps. His writings caused him to be exiled from his country to which he could not return until 1994, right after the Glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Jafar Panahi and Ai Weiwei face another kind of exile. Instead of being sent out of their countries, they are banned from leaving them. In fact, in his defence the Iranian filmmaker said: “I am Iranian and I will stay in Iran”. Both of them are facing what Umberto Eco would call Ur-fascism as an allergic attitude towards any intellectual troublemaker trying to ring a different sounding bell. They are accused of treason because they disagree.  Will they see a change one day like in Russia or the Arab countries? Might Iran and China collapse? According to the laws of history the change will inevitably come and it will definitely be unique and never the way we expected.

(1)  Five moral pieces, Umberto Eco, (translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen), Secker and Warburg, 2001. P. 22.
Dutch / Nederlanse versie

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