Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei stands in a room filled with millions of hand-crafted sunflower seeds
***1/2 out of ****

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary about a famous Chinese artist and political activist who I am ashamed to say I’d never heard of. The movie portrays him as an uncompromising crusader of social justice. His status as a world-renowned contemporary artist gives him a strong voice when criticizing the Chinese government, an act that sounds quite scary.

He has art exhibited all over the world. He collaborated with Swiss architects on the design of the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympic games (Though openly criticized the Olympics following this commission). His work ranges from installations of sculpture, photography, performance art, and video. A lot of his activism in this documentary focuses on his reaction to the great Sichuan earthquake which led to seventy thousand deaths, many of which he feels were due to substandard government buildings. When he decided to investigate the deaths of five thousand child students in poorly constructed schools, the government would not release their names.

While Ai Weiwei has fought for many causes, he has been subject to police brutality and many government enforced shut-downs of outlets he used for spreading his thoughts. His current choice of media is a Twitter account, which the government can’t touch. The documentary makes great use of this fact by using displays of his tweets as a regular narrative passage.

Ai is a very fun interview subject. His artistic sense of humor (He painted “Coca-Cola” on a Neolithic vase) and uncompromising views are all conveyed with a very calm and soft voice. He’s doing his best to enjoy the notoriety he’s created for himself in his country. His art and activism are one and the same. What he feels compelled to produce comes from his frustration of repression. While his acts of defiance are at times immature, they are always entertaining and he feels them to be the appropriate response to, what he feels, is a bullying force. His activism may not utilize the right tactics but it has the artistic power of influence. 

Listen to the review by John Powers.

Aside from a tremendous amount of coverage following Ai with friends and family as he plans and attends art installations, we get interviews with journalists, artists, and cultural critics who discuss this man’s impact and what it means to challenge current-day China. It is rightly pointed out that Ai is only able to function as an activist today because of a modern China that is comparatively more democratic. Ai is adamant in fighting national complacency and the attitude that things are good enough.

Overall, this is a documentary that feels personal, funny, informational and finally, open-ended. The artist is currently dealing with possibly fabricated charges of tax evasion with no chance of leaving the country, and was forced to comply with the demand that he stop speaking out. There is a point late into the documentary when Ai has been released on probation after a long absence and interrogation. It is scary to see this normally brave outspoken man afraid in his refusal to make a statement. Naturally he’s back at it.

My familiarity with Chinese artists is, like most things, through film. What I know about Chinese film-makers, is that even when they seem like they are being subversive, they never admit to it. Ai Weiwei is an artist with bold statements as an advocate for democracy. This movie captures a brutally honest yet warm personality that gives us re-assurance that the art world still has very courageous heroes.

The documentary is directed by Alison Klayman and won the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. 

You can hear an All Things Considered interview with Klayman here.

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