Ai Weiwei Documentary Opens HOTDOCS in Toronto

May 8, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
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The artists at work (

Outstanding and outspoken documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” made its Canadian premiere by kicking off this year’s HOTDOCS festival in Toronto.

Having won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at the 2012 Sundance film festival earlier this year, the documentary received a warm welcome from two packed theatres on April 26.

A prominent Chinese artist turned activist and co-designer of Beijing’s Olympic stadium, Ai Weiwei made international headlines after exposing his frustrations with the Chinese Communist regime, often through his art but also through social media outlets.

Alison Klayman, an American documentary filmmaker who lived in Beijing as the events unfolded, began following and filming Ai.

The documentary shows how the artist was assaulted by local police officers, how his studio was demolished, and how he became a target of the Chinese regime after referring to the 2008 Chinese Olympics as propaganda. Surveillance cameras and undercover police began monitoring his house in Beijing from that point on.

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the regime tried to curtail all media attention about the quake, not releasing any casualty statistics.

Ai Weiwei, however, summoned volunteers to help find the names of more than 5,000 children who died because of the “tofu construction” of government school buildings. He posted the results on his blog, along with videos of police confrontations.

Ai’s activism resulted in the closing of his blog, constant monitoring, and detainment by the authorities on April 3, 2011. When he was released 81 days later, the regime’s explanation for his detention was alleged tax evasion.

“This film is about freedom of expression,” Ai said in a January interview, just before “Never Sorry” screened at Sundance.

“In many areas and locations around the world, you can completely lose your freedom simply because you are asking for freedom,” he said in the interview, posted on the HOTDOCS website.

Ai’s loudest protest was heard through Twitter where thousands of his followers watched events unfold. He constantly kept his supporters updated by posting pictures whenever he travelled for his exhibitions in Germany and England.

China ‘under very strong control’

Ai said “Never Sorry” is about “the reality that has been existing in this piece of land for decades. China is developing itself, but in certain cases such as the judicial system and freedom of speech, it has hardly developed. It’s still under very strong control.”

The Great Firewall, an ironic name given to China’s Internet restrictions, has shown the outside world just how tightly the regime restricts the content its citizens are able to access.

“I don’t think [the documentary] will ever be seen by the public in mainland China, only a small public will ever see it in China … less than 0.1 percent who technically can jump over the Great Firewall and watch it,” Ai said.

Although making the documentary was difficult, Ai believes the struggle was worthwhile.

“The effort is important only because it’s so difficult. I think it’s good for anybody to see it, the government and officials and police should see it. … Because they think all Western people hate China or are trying to overthrow the government, but they don’t really look at each individual case to see what the intention is and how to make it better.”

He added that China “cannot afford not to change. It takes time, but only when there’s pressure, when there’s a demand for it. We all know humans are not going to change by themselves if there’s no pressure there.”

Although Ai was released on June 22nd, 2011, the authorities continue to monitor him at his home in Beijing. During his detainment, he underwent psychological torture and 24/7 monitoring. He was put under house arrest when he returned home and was charged with tax evasion totalling US$2.4 million.

When the news broke, Ai’s supporters started forwarding money to his company’s account or folding bills into paper planes and throwing them over the wall of his Beijing home.

Although Ai has been less outspoken through social media like Twitter and his blog, he tries to keep his supporters around the world up to date with news. He installed video surveillance in his home, which is said to be a form of “silenced protest.”

As soon as the audience left the HOTDOCS theatre after seeing “Never Sorry,” they were moved to send congratulatory tweets to the producer of the film and also to Ai WeiWei for being such an “inspirational artist.”

“Stay strong” some wrote, and Ai retweeted

Although Ai tries to keep a low profile online, Klayman says that through his retweets, his fans can learn what he’s thinking or doing. After the house arrest expires in June, the world will again witness the “eternal optimist” that Ai WeiWei deems himself to be.

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