It’s about time you meet Ai Weiwei.
He’s the guy who designed Beijing’s National Stadium–more widely known as the Bird’s Nest–for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2011, Art Review named him ‘Artist of the Year’ while Time magazine listed him as the year’s 18th most influential person.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry introduces to film–at last–the rebellious Chinese superstar artist-activist in this wonderful documentary capturing the spirit of true originals who play a risky game of limbo beneath the watchful eye of an authoritarian government.
We begin in Weiwei’s home and studio, located in the rolling hills of the Caochangdi art district in northeastern Beijing. The features include a walled-entrance, high ceilings, a garden in the courtyard, and cats who’ve mastered the art of opening doors.
Oh yes, and don’t forget those security cameras courtesy of the Chinese government, trained on the artist’s entrance. Why are they there? On his twitter feed and through his own short documentaries during the Olympics, Weiwei protested the fact of his regime kicking poor folks out of Beijing in order to present their own version of the way they’d like the city to be shown. The whole idea of the stadium was to celebrate inclusion, not exclusion.
Always a friend to other artist-dissidents, Weiwei is awoken one night to the sounds of authorities banging on his door at a hotel near a protest he is attending. The footage can be heard but not seen as Weiwei records the events surrounding his beating at the hands of police. Later, we see him satirizing the regime by making an installation project of his own security camera, trained on himself.
How does he make a living? From international backers and curators in the United States and in Europe. Two years ago, he was commissioned by the Tate Modern gallery in London. Titled “Sunflower Seeds”, the work consisted of one hundred million porcelain “seeds”, each individually hand-painted by hundreds of Chinese artisans and then scattered over the Turbine Hall floor.
In more footage beyond China‘s borders, we see the younger Weiwei in New York as a student and then into adulthood, from 1981 until his return to China in 1993 to be with his ailing father. The footage shows a much thinner man, but with the same precocious air, designing conceptual art, producing sculptures, and becoming fascinated with black jack in his frequent escapades to Atlantic City.
The film does such a fine job balancing both his artistic endeavors as well as his political activism–and the way they work hand-in-hand–that it comes as a surprise to learn midway that he has a wife as well as a young child born from what appears to be an extra-marital affair. The story wisely stays away from delving too deeply into his personal affairs, playing those things as facts in his life that he and his wife deal with privately.
At its most compelling, Never Sorry shows Ai Weiwei to be the people’s tribune, much like Michael Moore is for America. I’m reminded of the old journalistic creed that goes, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Like a Moore film, the best sequences involve him taking legal action against the police brutality that came down on him earlier. He believes the whole exercise is a futile one, but he films himself and his crew going to police stations, filling out forms and generally causing himself to be a thorn in their sides. The system is no damned good, but it’s the only one he has to work with.
The other sequence involves the massive installation piece “Remembering” exhibited at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. Upon visiting the devastation after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Weiwei learned of the government’s role in suppressing data that would reveal the names of thousands of school children who perished, mostly as a result of shoddy construction in what Weiwei terms “tofu-skin schools”. Shortly thereafter, he involved himself in the collection of over 5,000 of the deceased children’s names in a memorial that stays up on his wall to this day. On the facade of the gallery in Germany were 9,000 children’s school bags spelling out one mother’s quote: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”.
The film ends on a disquieting note. While director Alison Klayman was in post-production with the film, news came of Weiwei’s disappearance. Like so many others that came before him, including his own father, it appears as though the authorities kidnapped him in the middle of the night. Supporters by the hundreds risked their lives to protest on his behalf outside his former studio that was set to be unjustly demolished.
Ai Weiwei was taken prisoner for 81 days last year, and upon his release we see footage of him being dropped off at the entrance to his house. He is gaunt and weary and reveals in rather stark terms that he can’t talk about it.
Upon the birth of the new nation of Ghana back in 1957, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom”. For the first time in our journey alongside him in this film, we see Ai Weiwei as a victim. An attempt by his regime to suppress that very notion that makes up his core.
Klayman, formerly a staffer at NPR, does a good job of multi-tasking throughout. She successfully introduces us to a complicated, free-spirited troublemaker, giving us a taste of his early years through stock footage, through his many different artistic projects, and then finally by walking alongside the man and simply following him in his compelling day-to-day affairs. I could have watched an entire film of him checking in at police stations or defying authoritarian thugs when twitter followers and fans of his show up to a shack of a restaurant where he said he’d go one night, all of them sitting around and eating outside while authorities tap them on the shoulders, wondering how much longer they’ll be.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a very good film that puts real faces to a progressive movement and a desire for freedom in today’s China, a country that Weiwei admits has traveled a great distance in the last few decades, but still not nearly enough.
***½ (out of 4)
Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival runs from April 26th – May 6, 2012. We have already previewed our top 5 Must-See Docs for this year’s fest and will be rolling out our reviews for some of the documentaries in the coming days, however today we bring you our reviews of the Opening Night film for the Festival, Ai Weiwei Never Sorry.
Enjoy and see you at the festival.
There are about fourteen things going on in this wonderful, lively and riveting documentary about Chinese super-activist and vanguard artist Ai WeWei and it all works brilliantly. The folks at Hot Docs have chosen the perfect documentary to open its 2012 festival. With Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, we get a glimpse into the world of an artist who not only uses art as commentary of his surroundings, but his innovative use of social media to spread his message to the world in an environment where the simple act of a conversation can get you jailed. The documentary weaves a tale that is captivating, insightful and very educational. We follow Weiwei as he prepares for a couple of major exhibitions while revisiting his past and his run-ins with the police and the government of China. We are then made witness to a time when he simply just disappears and the global outcry that follows. After his release, we are left wondering what happened and most importantly we understand why he does what he does. Above all that, we get to see him in his environment creating art, discussing it and sharing himself with those who love him and the art he crafts. To be able to see a glimpse of what one does for his country through his art is joy and a privilege. A definite must watch.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese-born, international artist who is also an outspoken dissident of his homeland. This film explores his early life through his stay in New York in the 80′s and his decision to become an activist after his return to China in 1993. From 2008 to 2010, Beijing-based journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman gained full access to Weiwei. Extensive interviews with him, friends, family and fellow artists show a determined and motivated artist and activist. The documentary shows how much the art and activism are linked with a humor and lightness that belies the struggles he is involved in. As Weiwei prepares for major exhibitions abroad, the art produced is as much about the human condition in China as it is about Weiwei’s vision of the world. After China shut down his ability to blog by closing down his website, he turned to Twitter as a means to communicate with fellow Chinese and those outside China. The degree that social media plays within his life is quite large, and acts as a running commentary on his daily life, and by extension, the lives of all Chinese. This voice is important and has something positive to say.