Heroic artists shine in ‘Beijing Spring’ at Epos Art Film Festival

The festival features films on architecture, visual arts, protest art, poetry and literature, theater, dance, cinema on cinema and music, as well as an Israeli program and a short-film competition.

SCENES FROM ‘Walter Arlen’s First Century,’ which will be screened at the EPOS festival March 28  (photo credit: Courtesy)
SCENES FROM ‘Walter Arlen’s First Century,’ which will be screened at the EPOS festival March 28
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You’ve probably heard of the protests and liberalization of the Prague Spring in 1968. A similar but not nearly as well-known movement of Chinese artists and democracy activists took place in the late ‘70s – and is the subject of a fascinating documentary, Beijing Spring, which will be shown as part of the Epos Art Film Festival (www.filmart.co.il). Epos will run from May 1-8 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, with some screenings at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
The festival features films on architecture, visual arts, protest art, poetry and literature, theater, dance, cinema on cinema and music, as well as an Israeli program and a short films competition. Arts lovers will have a hard time choosing among them. Last year, the festival was postponed and then held online. But this year it will take place in person, in accordance with the Green Tag regulations from the Health Ministry.
Beijing Spring (beijingspringfilm.com), which is the closing-night film, is in the protest art category, and tells the amazing story of a courageous group of artists you’ve never heard of. It is the latest documentary from Andy Cohen and Gaylen Ross, who bring a wealth of experience to the film. The two previously collaborated on Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis, which Ross directed and wrote and Cohen co-wrote.
Cohen, who is based in Switzerland, has directed and co-written a number of films, including Ximei (2019), and a nine-part series on Chinese artists. He also produced Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), The World Before Her (2012), Hooligan Sparrow (2016) and Human Flow (2017).
Ross, a New Yorker, had a career as an actress and played one of the heroines in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead before turning to directing. Among her films are Blood Money: Switzerland’s Nazi Gold, a feature-length documentary on Swiss Banks and Holocaust accounts, and a look at the diamond business called Dealers Among Dealers.
Neither director was surprised when I admitted to them in our recent Zoom interview that I had never heard of the Beijing Spring before I saw their movie.
“There has been very little written about it,” said Cohen. “And even younger people in China tend not to have heard of it,” said Ross. She learned this when she brought in interns of Chinese descent from New York University to translate parts of the film and found that it was all new to them. “I was so happy to see that they really got into it,” she said.
THE FILMMAKERS ground their film in 20th-century Chinese history, putting it in the context of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, when anything to do with what Mao Zedong dismissively called “art for art’s sake” was deemed counterrevolutionary, and people were sent to prison and worse just for owning books.
Students, who had already been exposed to art and education, were “sent down” to remote rural areas and put to work at hard labor, often isolated from their families and brutalized for years, in an attempt to purify them from counterrevolutionary influences.
“This is a difficult, sensitive area that people rarely talk about there,” said Ross, likening it to “years ago where people didn’t talk about the Holocaust.”
But government influence didn’t go with the group of artists who called themselves the Stars, and they began to write and post art on the so-called Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1978, during a power struggle among Mao’s followers and other government members for control of the country. For a few years, there was a brief thawing of the repressive policies toward artists.
The self-taught Stars, who included a young Ai Weiwei (the member of the Stars group who is best known around the world today), challenged the government-sponsored propaganda art of the time by exhibiting their new art, which championed individuality and free expression, often exposing the inhumanity of the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, editor and essayist Wei Jingsheng posted his call for democracy on Democracy Wall.
The authorities, further provoked by the Stars’ exhibits and protest demonstrations, eventually cracked down and closed Democracy Wall, imprisoning many and slamming the door on this brief period of reform. But records of the period survive in the memories and works of the artists, and in extensive footage filmed by a fearless young filmmaker named Chi Xiaoning.
COHEN DISCOVERED Chi’s footage a decade ago and was transfixed by it. There was no other archive of film of the events, said Cohen. “The Beijing Spring was erased.” He and Ross learned that even most of the artists themselves, many of whom have gone abroad, had not seen the footage. In Beijing Spring, there are some emotional moments where they watch footage of themselves from decades earlier for the first time.
“There is so much joy in the story,” said Ross, and it is exhilarating to watch as the artists encourage anyone who is like-minded to join them in posting works on the fence outside an official museum. There are moments captured on film when the artists hear Western rock and pop music for the first time, dance unabashedly and were subsequently inspired to create works celebrating this sound. They were open to the world and hungry for art and culture from abroad.
“The only rule they had was: Create what you want, how you want,” Cohen said.
A documentary is really only as interesting as its protagonists, and the artists in the Beijing Spring “are rock stars that never got their deal,” said Ross. The artists in the film, including Ma Desheng, Ai Wei Wei and the many others who literally risked death to create art – and many of whom were imprisoned – radiate charisma and magnetism.
The Stars movement “was reminiscent of what is happening in Hong Kong today. This is a story about underground film-making, radical art and fighting censorship,” said Cohen. “A modern-day David-and-Goliath story.”