Sunday, 15 April 2012

Thoughts on Freedom, Ai Weiwei, Jafar Panahi and the Holocaust


Freedom – spoken a lot about our national redemption, want to look abroad.

Article in the Guardian by Sarah Bakewell.


In China Ai Weiwei, creator of the glorious field of sunflower seeds at the Tate, and the Beijing Olympic stadium - the bird's nest.

Then arrested, held for 81 days without trial.

Now 'under surveillance.'

Decided to install four mini cams around his house to stream them to the web.

Way for his supporters to see that he is OK.

Way for his soul to laugh at his Chinese oppressors.


Now titled, ‘artist and dissident.’

Chinese shut down the web feed, but the refusal to buckle remains.

Weiwei tweets his resistance. ‘bye-bye to all the voyeurs’

He will be back.


While being arrested for fraud posted in his blog,

‘When I heard that the government were arresting me for fraud I laughed, at least they are sharing their honour with me.’

A first, he says, his friends and family were worried, but he went on to write, ‘I don’t see things that way. I believe that no matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy.’

Ai Wiewei, I salute you and, this festival of Passover, am inspired by you.


Next stop on this Whistlestop global tour of oppression – Iran.

Not sure how much comfort brings to us that President Ahmadinejad’s treatment of his own people is only a little better than the destruction he threatens on Israel.

Jafar Panahi is one of the leading lights in Iranian cinema, director of 11 films, winner of countless awards at international film festivals.


On 20 December 2010 Panahi, after being prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” was handed a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media as well as leaving the country


Began moping around his home with a colleague, unable to do the thing he wanted to do, video camera in hand.

They begin to discuss the script they would make if they could but give up, ‘what’s the point of making film, if you could tell a film’ he says.

Eventually, in a discussion of the nature of filmaking his colleague, with the video camera, and Panahi, with his video recording iphone, begin to make a film about not making a film.

‘When hairdressers have nothing to do they cut each other's hair. His colleague says


The film about the filming he is forbidden to make is called, ‘This is not a film,’

Smuggled out of Iran on a memory stick hidden in a cake.

Shown at Cannes.


In the film he finds a kind of freedom, in a place hidden from oppression, a place where the enslaved refuse to allow the reach of their oppressors.

Jafar Panahi, on this passover day I salute you.


Reminded of two vignettes from inspirational survivors of the death camps of our own greatest contemporary memory of enslavement.


Primo Levi writes in his gripping account of life in Auschwitz, It This is a Man, (at least I think it is If This is a Man) of a Jew in the next door bunk who would end every day of backbreaking unforgiving concentration camp labour with a series of push ups. He would even coral his son into these physical jerks.

It wasn’t about keeping fit, or even developing strength, it was about never letting the Nazis feel that they had emptied him out – he always had a space the Nazis couldn’t get to. He always had a strength that they couldn’t take away from him.


The second comes from Victor Frankl, also a Auschwitz Survivor. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankly skethces out how he was able to survive not so much physically, but existentially, how was he able to keep his soul alive.

He writes,

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been a few in number, but the offer sufficient proof, that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of freedoms – to chose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.

In a time of oppression it’s not possible to choose to escape oppression, but it is possible to choose how to respond to the bullies the bigots and the brutes.

It’s always possible to choose not to be beaten down, not to be emptied out.

It’s always possible to choose to be free in a tiny corner inside the soul that no Pharaoh can penetrate.


In this place, in this response to oppression, Frankel advocates a search for meaning.

If we can find something to live for, something for our lives to mean, we can survive any oppression and, please God, even rise to overthrow it.

A  search for meaning, of course, goes beyond merely the removal of oppression, we need to find something to live for, not just something to rebel against.

And it is here that Frankel comes to the centrally Jewish observation of the importance of responsibility in freedom.

His words -

“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.[3]


May those of us who have never known the incarceration or abuses that have struck Ai Weiwie or Jafar Panhari never forget that it is responsibility and meaing that give meaning to our physical freedom and, indeed, are even more important than it.


To all of those who have survived oppression.

To those who have escaped in body and those who have only been able to escape in spirit alone.

At this Passover time, I salute you.


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