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From left to right: Jacob Appelbaum, Laura Poitras, and Ai Weiwei. (Photo: Heather Corcoran/Rhizome)

Dissident Artists Collaborate in Laura Poitras Documentary

10-minute video by award-winning filmmaker shows WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum and artist Ai Weiwei building installation in Beijing

Nadia Prupis

Acclaimed journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras on Tuesday released her first film since last year's Academy Award-winning Citizenfour—a 10-minute video for the New York Times which chronicles artist Ai Weiwei and WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum collaborating on a project.

Ai and Appelbaum are both known for their work against unchecked government power and state surveillance in China and the U.S., their respective home countries. They began building their installation together in Beijing in April. Poitras—who, like Appelbaum, contributed to the publication of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosure of widespread government surveillance in 2013—asked to film them.

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Poitras writes for the Times:

The art project the pair made, “Panda to Panda,” was not about surveillance. It was about secrets. They stuffed cuddly toy panda bears with public, shredded N.S.A. documents that were originally given to me and Glenn Greenwald two years ago in Hong Kong by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Inside each panda, Ai and Appelbaum placed a micro SD memory card containing a digital backup of the previously published documents.

The project’s title, “Panda to Panda,” is the synthesis of two terms created by dissident cultures. The slang term for the secret police in China is “panda,” which is a censorship-evading Mandarin homonym: “national security” sounds like “national treasure,” a.k.a. the panda. “Panda to Panda also refers to peer-to-peer communication (P2P), a method of decentralized networking and a philosophy of egalitarian human interaction on the Internet.

Like the red lanterns Ai hung under every surveillance camera the government installed outside his studio, “Panda to Pandaplayfully acknowledges and rejects state power.

Watch the video below:


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