Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Movie Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Directed by: Alison Klayman.

China has come a long way in becoming a more open society in the past few decades, yet still has a long way to go until they are truly open, truly free. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei almost perfectly embodies this contradiction in Chinese society. Decades ago, someone as openly critical of the Chinese government would be, like his father was, shipped off for “reeducation through hard labor” – and that is if they were lucky and weren’t executed or just “disappeared”. And yet, while this hasn’t happened to Ai Weiwei yet, the Chinese government did shut down his blog when he used it to openly and repeatedly criticize them in the wake of the earthquake that left tens of thousands dead – including thousands of school children crushed in poorly constructed government schools. One police officer even punched Ai in the head, causing him to need brain surgery. And then there was that three month period where Ai vanished – taken in by the police and questioned, apparently because of his finances, and then released – with a $2.4 million tax bill given to him. So yes, things have gotten better – but they are far from good.

Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a fascinating portrait of the man who has become arguably China’s most famous modern artist. It tracks his development – from his nine year period in New York for the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, to his return to Beijing, where he became a fixture on the “underground” art scene – because the galleries did not want to show his type of art. Back then, he was doing things like photographing himself smashed a Han Dynasty vase, or painting over similar relics – sometimes with logos for things like Coca Cola. These were seen as shocking at the time – how could he “destroy” these pieces of Chinese history, but the symbolism is clear – China is destroying their own history everyday – and no one notices.

His career really took off in the early 2000s, and his reputation has simply grown, both internationally and inside China ever since. He now works on an enormous scale – making a collage of backpacks spelling out a simple phrase “She lived happily on this earth for seven years”, a quote from a parent of one those children killed in the earthquake. Ai was tireless in his effort to uncover how many children were killed – sending out volunteers across the country to collect the names and birthdates of the children killed, because apparently the Chinese government thought this information should be “classified”. When they shut down his blog, he takes to twitter – getting information out to his mainly followers as it happens. When the police follow and videotape him, he has his own videographer’s film them right back. Although he knows nothing will come out of his request for an investigation into the punch that police officer gave him, he goes around to every government agency he can to file a complaint. Why? Because for Ai, saying the system is flawed is useless – you have to show it is flawed. How else will it ever get better?

This documentary is mainly a celebration of Ai Weiwei and his work – essentially letting him tell his own story, either through interviews (with Klayman, or others that she observes), or through simply sitting back and watching, fly on the wall style, as Ai works. His life and his work have become so intertwined, it is almost impossible to tell the difference anymore – everything he does is part of his art. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, fascinating documentary about an important artist – and is one of the year’s best documentaries.

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