Having chosen the struggle for Chinese human rights over a life of privilege, Ai Weiwei is arguably the world’s most important activist-artist. Yet despite his international prominence (he even has an asteroid named after him), Ai faced a head-spinning array of specious charges trumped up by the communist authorities.
Alison Klayman offers a timely documentary-profile in courage with the fascinating and infuriating Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.
Considering the recurring middle finger motif in Ai’s work, it’s hardly surprising that he is not a favorite of the regime. Yet, there is more to Ai than mere symbolic defiance. Klayman trenchantly traces the roots of Ai’s nonconformist spirit to the suffering his family experienced during the Cultural Revolution.
While Ai made some noise when he repudiated the Olympics, few could hear it within China. However, his mastery of social media, specifically Twitter, would change all that. Indeed, Ai and the legions of everyday Chinese citizens he inspired through tweets ought to put everyone following celebrities like Ashton Kutcher to shame.
Most Westerners should know that Ai was held incommunicado for a long stretch by the police, but the projects that earned the artist the communist regime’s wrath may come as a revelation.
Most notable were his efforts to record each name of the thousands of school children who died during the Sichuan earthquake as a result of flimsy “tofu” school construction. In any transparent society, this information would be in the public record, but in China all such efforts were explicitly forbidden.
There are scores of lessons to be found in “Sorry,” including the importance of documenting such tragedies for history, rather than letting the innocent victims of Sichuan fall through the communist memory hole. At times, Ai’s public criticisms of the regime are shockingly bold. Clearly, his guts are made of steel-reinforced concrete.
Although Klayman largely focuses on his activism, she still conveys a vivid sense of Ai’s personality. Partly this comes out through some shrewdly edited interview segments. Yet more fundamentally, Ai just seems to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person.
Indeed, Klayman wisely focuses squarely on her subject. As a documentarian, she is rather blessed that Ai recorded so many of his protests and the subsequent government crackdowns for his social network followers.
His own documentaries Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry are staggering exposes in their own right, still quite findable on the Internet and ardently recommended.
The word “controversial” should not really apply here. What Ai says has happened, most definitely including a notorious police assault, really did go down. He has the scars and the video to prove it. Aside from some helpful context provided by talking heads and an innocuous score, “Sorry” is essentially Ai’s show—and appropriately so.
Cast: Ai Weiwei, Danqing Chen, Ying Gao
Running Time: 96 minutes
Language: English and Mandarin with English subtitles
We want to call a film like “Sorry” “inspiring.” It is a term that undeniably applies to Ai. Unfortunately, though he might be out of immediate physical danger, Ai’s relative freedoms within contemporary China remain harshly curtailed, so viewers are likely to feel several conflicting emotions when the film ends. Anger would be a good one to go with.
This documentary is important, because the international spotlight must shine with far more intensity on Teacher Ai’s situation if circumstances are ever going to change.
Given the Chinese Communist Party’s nasty habit of harassing its critics, Klayman also earns a fair amount of credit for having the guts to tackle this project in the first place. Hopefully, she will have to produce a happy postscript for “Sorry” sometime in the future, but surely she would not begrudge the extra work.
As it is, the efforts invested in “Sorry” are considerable. One of two standout documentaries at this year’s Sundance (along with The Other Dream Team), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry earns a very high recommendation as well when it opens this Friday (July 27) in New York at the IFC Center.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit http://jbspins.blogspot.com