Week 13/2023

The highlight of this week is the Courtisane festival that’s taking place from Wednesday night to Sunday night. Next to our Courtisane selection, we made a regular agenda for the first half of the week with three films about labour and its global, cultural shifts. 

In À nous la liberté (1931), René Clair presents an anarchist satire on monotonous factory work. An inspiration for Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Clair’s revolutionary early sound film offers a condemnation of prison-like working conditions, Stalinism and industrial dehumanization.

A sobering, fly-on-the-wall look at the 21st-century’s globalized economy, the observational documentary American Factory (2019) offers a kind of update of À nous la liberté. Filmed over three years, direct cinema veterans Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert obtained unique access to film in a Chinese-owned windshield factory in Ohio. Cultural tensions rise between the Chinese workers and managerial staff who were brought in and the American employees, who are expected to follow Chinese labour practices. 

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is coming to Bozar in Brussels to present his latest documentary Rohingya (2021) which was, just as his previous films, refused by the major streaming platforms and film festivals such as Cannes because of interference by the Chinese authorities. A continuation of Human Flow (2017) and The Rest (2019), the film focuses on the plight of refugees, in this case the ethnic Muslim minority of the Rohingya who were forced out of Myanmar in 2017 and fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee camp. Shot over several months, the film observes in long, uninterrupted set-ups the community’s daily life, social rituals, routines and the camp’s unique landscapes. Working outside the camp is restricted or forbidden by the authorities in order to avoid undermining natives’ job prospects. 

À nous la liberté

One of the all-time comedy classics, René Clair’s À nous la liberté tells the story of Louis, an escaped convict who becomes a wealthy industrialist. Unfortunately, his past returns (in the form of old jail pal Emile) to upset his carefully laid plans.


À nous la liberté is a landmark in the history of film comedy because it’s funny, yet it is too satirical for farce, too farcical for satire. And it is a landmark in the history of sound film. Back in 1931 when almost all film directors in every country were cautiously using the new technology as a recording medium, Clair was exploring it as a creative medium. This was in addition to his use of Auric’s music. The composition of film music and the sensitivity of its application to the narrative are different arts, not always in harmony (!). À nous la liberté set a new standard for them in the formative years of sound film. [...]

The exact nature of Clair’s humour is problematic. He doesn’t treat his characters as puppets, and part of his charm is that he bestows idiosyncrasy on characters who are little more than stereotypes. But he doesn’t convey that affection for his characters which we relish in the films of another comic writer-director, Preston Sturges. At the risk of oxymoron, Clair’s comedy has great exuberance but not a lot of joy. That doesn’t make them less funny, just colder – what John Russell Taylor called ‘demented clockwork.’”

John Flaus1

American Factory

In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant, hiring two thousand Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.


“The film’s promotional material emphasizes a clash of cultures that supposedly constitutes the major obstacle to a mutually beneficial relationship between the Chinese firm and its American employees. In a short feature that accompanies the film, Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions picked American Factory as its first project, posit ‘storytelling’ as an alchemical solvent through which contradictions can be transcended. The raw data of the film, on the other hand, communicates something much different. The major clash in American Factory is not between American and Chinese, but between workers and managers. ‘Culture’ is a poor stand-in for power, leverage, and exploitation, the real subjects of this film, which know no national boundary.”

Andy Battle1

Cinema ZED, Leuven
Ai Weiwei, 2021, 122’

Rohingya is a continuation of Ai Weiwei’s previous films Human Flow (2017) and The Rest (2019) which spotlight the plight of refugees. The feature-length documentary focuses on Rohingya refugees who were forced out of Myanmar in August 2017. The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine State who have suffered several decades of persecution by the Burmese government. Following widespread ethnic cleansing by the Burmese army, they fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which have become the world’s largest refugee camp of our time and accommodate nearly 900,000 refugees now. Filmed over several months in Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya records the community’s everyday life, social rituals, the camp’s unique landscapes, and the light of humanity amid one of the greatest displacements of our time.


Ana Cristina MendesEspecially regarding your transnational documentaries on the refugee ‘crisis,’ the issue of aesthetics – more precisely, the aestheticization of reality – seems to be a recurrent one in interviews. In your earlier documentaries, we sensed that, for you, a way to fight fascism and authoritarianism was through rejecting the appropriation of aesthetics by unceasingly bear- ing witness to reality and engaging in unrelenting documentation. You were not deliberate regarding matters of aesthetic judgment – the recording was the artistic and political intervention in the public sphere. While your earlier films were rough and raw, your more recent films have stunning, beautiful images, in the sense of being more aesthetically pleasing. Could you expand on how – and if – ‘beautifying’ remains a loaded word for you today? Do you find yourself now pursuing any kind of visual effect in these transnational projects?

Ai Weiwei: Roughness or un-roughness is, for me, the same when making a film. In the early films, we had to do them for the next day to put them online. We wanted people to see the images, so we only needed a sketch. Now we have time to show the films in theatres or film festivals. We must respect people’s watching habits. Westerners eat at a table, using plates and knives and forks. A more expensive restaurant only uses larger plates. This does not mean that the food is better, but people appreciate that. So, it depends if you want to eat your grandma’s food, which is many times better, or you want to go to a luxurious restaurant. It is a matter of experiencing a situation differently. A so-called good image means nothing to me. Every part of nature, every leaf, every piece of grass, is much more beautiful than visual effects.

Ana Cristina Mendes in conversation with Ai Weiwei1

  • 1Ana Cristina Mendes, “The world as a readymade: a conversation with Ai Weiwei,” Transnational Screens, 17 April 2022.
BOZAR, Brussels
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