Dir. Alison Klayman, USA, 2012, 91 mins, in English and Mandarin with English subtitles
Review by Eva Moravetz
This highly engaging documentary of first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, for which she won the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, introduces us to Weiwei in his Beijing home which he shares with his wife and a number of cats and dogs. One of the cats has figured out how to open doors and we see the animal in action as it sums up its chances before jumping on the handle and sliding out of the door. Weiwei looks on, bemused, and notes that the only thing the cat won’t be able to do is to close the door behind it. This simple but extraordinary scene is the perfect metaphor for Ai Weiwei, the artist and the story of his life that’s taken dramatic turns in recent years.
Born into the most populous countries in the world and one of the most repressive regimes in 1957, Weiwei learnt what constriction meant very early in life. His father Ai Qing, a poet and intellectual, brought the wrath of the Communist Party on himself 1958 and was sent into exile with his family during which they were branded as ‘class enemies’ and Weiwei’s father was even forced to do cleaning public toilets among other jobs. After Mao’s death the family was allowed to move back to Beijing and Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy where one of his schoolmates, amongst others, was Zhang Yimou, director of such blockbusters as Hero (2002) and House Of Flying Daggers (2004). Between 1981 and 1993, Weiwei lived in the US, mainly in New York, and worked as a conceptual artist. After returning to China, he quickly became a successful architect and leading artistic figure of his country. He was co-designer of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium but in the summer of 2007 he denounced the forthcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Stadium as Communist propaganda. Perhaps this was the turning point when Weiwei, the artist merged with Weiwei, the political rebel and became a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities, and this is roughly the time after which Alison Klayman soon took up her camera to accompany this brave (and stubborn) defender of personal freedom.
Klayman had been working as a freelance journalist in China when she first gained access to Weiwei in 2008. Since that moment, she’s been following him through his ups and downs – exhibitions of his artistic genius and intelligence and the troubles and dangers he’s been facing on a daily basis since he transformed himself into one of China’s most powerful political activists and one of his country’s most recognisable faces.
What Klayman’s movie manages to achieve is not just a portrait of an artist but a kind of peepshow of his difficult situation; his struggle with government authorities and his defiance through social media. The documentary catches up with Weiwei in 2009 on completing the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, his own private investigation into the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the terrible earthquake of 2008, organized with the help of volunteers through his blog. Shortly afterwards, his blog is shut down to which Ai answers by joining Twitter and continuing his attacks from there. He compares himself to a chess player ‘I have opponents; my opponents make a move, I make a move.’ When he’s clubbed in the head by police officers, he gives the finger by Tweeting about it. He receives emergency brain surgery in Munich where his solo exhibition titled So Sorry opens soon afterwards at the Haus Der Kunst in October 2009. Part of the show is Remembering, an installation of 9000 backpacks spelling out the Chinese phrase for ‘She lived happily on this earth for 7 years’ on the front of the museum, commemorating the child victims of the quake. Then he prepares for his Sunflower Seeds exhibition in the London Tate in the autumn of 2010 featuring a hundred million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds, symbols of both individuality and collectiveness, and the film’s climax is his scary, 81-day detention by the authorities.
Klayman masterfully merges the many layers of Ai’s life and story so that they smoothly transition from one into the other. We get snippets of Ai’s early life and his major artworks are featured, of course, but the real essence of the documentary is the defiance of the human spirit in the face of repression with plenty of space for Ai’s friends and contemporaries to speak up.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is about Ai, the artist, the man, the rebel but it’s also about the power of social media – which in the West is taken for granted – that enables us to open doors just like Ai’s cat does. We get a glimpse of his family; his only child from an extramarital affair and his mother who’s worried about Ai’s safety. These are the only awkward moments that find Weiwei nearly speechless but his peaceful, portly Buddha-like figure and soft voice hide fierce passion and an unmovable determination to stand by his principles no matter what the consequences might be for him or for his family. As he tells Klayman during the film ‘If there’s no freedom of speech, every single life has been in vain.’