Documentary Film Review–Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

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08/09/2012 by Stephen Silke

In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Freedom is Beautifully Tweaked by the Hands of a Master

Source: From Ai Weiwei's Twitter Feed.

Ai Weiwei winking under police surveillance.

The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry by Alison Klayman, chronicles artist Ai Weiwei’s past, as well as some of his major work up to 2011, where near the end of the film he returns home after being held by the Chinese government for over two months without charges. After his imprisonment he emerges a new, frightened man—one who truly has the boldness scared out of him–at least for some time.

In the 80’s, after Ai studied art in New York on the Chinese government’s dime, he went back to his country, and with fellow artists in the 1990’s, created a series of black, white or grey color field covered books educating others about international art movements flourishing inside and outside of their country. They contained essays by progressive Chinese artists amidst photographs and explanations of work by artists such as Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock.

The strengths of this film are that it does well to chronicle exactly how Ai has provoked the Chinese government, consistently daring it not to act and constantly daring it to allow his acts of free speech to exist. We also see the power of new social media–how Twitter is used to send cryptic, yet effective messages to his followers, rumored to be anywhere from 111,000 to 150,000, internationally. And we shudder and cringe watching Ai continue to practice free speech among his fellow citizens, where everyone seems to know who he is, but only half of the government-employed keepers of power stand up against Ai’s filmed antics.

To say that I was significantly impacted by this documentary would be an understatement. Rarely have I ever walked out of a film and been unable to even talk about it for weeks. But after some reflection I think that we are at an unprecedented place in human history. We stand at the crossroads of freedom and are able to see it coming down the road from such a far away place. Seeing and being able to act for freedom is now the unique, yet ubiquitous, and unrecognized privilege of our generation.

It is possible for most of us to travel to any number of Arab countries today and see power to the people gathering en media res. But here, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a stirring testament to one man’s peculiar situation where his celebrity can be parlayed to act out against an oppressive body of rulers and censors without the usual drastic countermeasures that would be handed down against someone less famous, or with fewer international connections.

Source: From Ai Weiwei's Twitter Feed.

A rendering of Ai Weiwei’s surgery scar resulting from a police attack.

We are taken through Ai’s clever and sometimes arduous attempts to communicate with followers, his past where he grew up as son of Chinese government subversive poet Ai Qing, how he bickered with the government during the Beijing Olympics resulting in the demolition of a large state of the art institute he was to helm, how he was beaten by police and kept from testifying in favor of Tan Zuoren, a fellow activist investigating Chinese earthquake deaths due to substandard “tofu construction” of buildings, and we are told something of the story of Ai’s baby boy who he fathered out of wedlock. Then the film comes full circle, all the way to the opening of his 2010 exhibit Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London. And through all of this the beauty of his artwork and the relevancy of his message is evident.

In the creation of the latter interactive exhibit at the Tate Modern, where eight million sunflower seeds were handmade from porcelain and their shell colorings painstakingly reproduced by paintbrush one at a time by rural artisans and shipped in huge quantities to London, we see the beauty of what the collective Chinese people can do. If freedom prevails in their land it is only a small sample of the coming beauty that this country could bring forth in the future, of which we can only cheer on the Chinese people to create from within.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens in the United States tomorrow (August 10, 2012). It’s a must see film, it’s R rated for language. 5 of 5 stars.

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