Ai WeiWei is the guy who flipped off Tiananmen Square. He has painted over Neolithic artifacts, and smashed Han dynasty vases. He’s attached a condom to the genital area of a raincoat and bent a clothes hanger in the shape of a man’s profile.
American journalist Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry, captures the controversial 55-year-old Chinese artist’s work and highlights his role as an outspoken activist using social media. The 91-minute 2012 documentary was screened on April 2 at Ithaca College as part of this year’s Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.
Ai is the Michael Moore of the Chinese art world. But unlike Moore, who in Fahrenheit 9/11 broadcast the Patriot Act from an ice-cream truck driving around the Capitol building (just so U.S. congressmen could hear it), Ai doesn’t have the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. He’s up against the Chinese government, who installed security cameras in his home and detained him for more than 80 days. Chinese police officers can and have shown up at his door, beating him severely in the head. Ai needed surgery to fix the damage.
Unlike Moore’s shenanigans, Ai’s antics could cost him his life. But he still persists in social commentary. When the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed more than 70,000 people, including many children in poorly made government schools, Ai and his supporters compiled a list of 5,212 names of dead children. To honor the victims, he collected 5,000 colorful backpacks and arranged them into Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years.” That sentence is a quote from one of the earthquake victim’s parents. The display, called “Remembering,” hung from the sides of the Haus der Kunst (The Children’s House) museum in Munich, Germany. Ai blogged about the children until Chinese government censored his website.
When Ai was beaten up by Chengdu police officers in 2009, he tweeted pictures of the aftermath and surgery. After the beating, he went to police headquarters with his camera crew, and filmed his complaint. He told police that he was assaulted; police told him that they would conduct an investigation. When Chengdu police denied the altercations, Ai hired lawyers to file a lawsuit. Although Ai knows nothing will come of it, he says, “You can’t say the system is flawed. You have to show it through the system.”
When asked if he wants revenge for what police did, Ai responds like a sage teacher: “It’s not personal,” he says. “They need to learn that what they did is wrong and they can’t do that to people.”
Klayman’s documentary portrays Ai as a fearless rebel. When the Chinese government banned freedom of expression and art after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Ai and his friends assembled black and white covered books. Inside the blank covers, Andy Warhol works, photographs, poetry, artwork and expression flourished. The books were distributed secretly, like Emmanuel Goldstein’s Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism in George Orwell’s 1984. You had to be part of the “brotherhood,” or in this case, you had to know someone who had a book.
Klayman’s documentary welcomes us into the public life of Ai WeiWei — from his art and activism to his philosophy and cats. Forty cats roam the premises of his art studio; one of them knows how to open doors. “The biggest difference between people and cats is that cats open doors but never close them,” Ai says.
Using footage she has collected between 2008 and 2011, Klayman develops a narrative of Ai’s life and work. Ai’s mother, Gao Ling, says she’s both proud of and terrified for her son. She wishes he was just an artist, but she knows if everyone refuses to speak, no change will happen. Ai’s younger brother, Ai Dan, says their father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, jailed during the Cultural Revolution, influenced WeiWei’s art.
Ai has been a vocal voice of dissent, and Klayman becomes part of his posse. Her camera watches the mundane — like Ai’s son feeding him melons — as well as the sensational — like the confrontations with authority. She juxtaposes Ai’s sometimes nonchalant, philosophical or humorous answers with analysis from other journalists and artists, including artist Dangling Chen, Chinese blogger and actress Huang Hung, and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos,
Klayman’s access allows her to create a comprehensive and inspiring documentary on Ai’s life, and that message isn’t lost. By choosing to tell the story of Ai WeiWei, she’s another Westerner promoting the freedom of speech.