This film is the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics. First-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access to Ai while working as a journalist in China. Her detailed portrait provides a nuanced exploration of contemporary China and one of its most compelling public figures.
As China’s economic growth continues to look robust in the wake of a global financial crisis, by its own standards, it has slowed since 2009. The Communist Party will inevitably be forced to reconsider investments in infrastructure and a reliance on exports, and instead put that money back into the hands of citizens to recharge the economy. On the streets and in the factories, low wages and poor working conditions have brought unrest, culminating in a rising number of nation-wide workers’ strikes and protests that have galvanized through the use of social media tools.
For decades, at the center of national subversion we have found internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. His online video that features random international citizens saying, fuck you motherland, in their native tongue into the camera is a bold example of his provocativeness. Ai Weiwei knows exactly how to connect to citizens – to make them believe in his ideas – and for the Chinese Government this poses a national threat, especially in an online age that they’re grappling to control.
In Alison Klayman’s documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which screened as a Berlinale Special during the 62nd International Berlin Film Festival, we see two years of Weiwei’s work and rebellion, witnessing some of the gutsiest actions ever taken by an artist in a heavily censored nation. At one point in the film, Klayman asks Weiwei where he gets his courage, to which he replies that he is ultimately fearful – and that is precisely what makes him so brave.
The film cites his Beijing National Stadium design for the 2008 Summer Olympics, also known as the Bird’s Nest, from which he later removed himself while voicing his anti-Olympics views to a negligent media. His process of creating the outstanding, and tedious, Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern in London is also observed in the film. The work consists of one hundred million porcelain “seeds,” each individually hand-painted in the town of Jingdezhen by 1,600 Chinese artisans, and scattered over a large area of the exhibition hall. The artist was keen for visitors to walk across and roll in the work to experience and contemplate the essence of his comment on mass consumption, Chinese industry, famine and collective work.
As a very active user of Twitter and blogging, Ai Weiwei has also accrued a large group of young supporters to help with various movements; yet even associating themselves with Weiwei has put their own reputations with the Party at risk. As Ai sees it, he uses ‘assistants as assassins.’ Most notable was their work after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that had Ai leading a citizens’ investigation to compile list upon list of all the school children who had died in the disaster.
The Sichuan inquest resulted in the shutting down of his blog; and while en route to testify at the trial of an earthquake activist, police stormed Weiwei’s hotel room in the city of Chengdu and left him with a deadly head wound that required emergency brain surgery. A running narrative throughout Never Sorry is Ai Weiwei’s ongoing efforts to have the Chinese officials and the police admit to causing the injury, a fact that they still deny today.
Ai Weiwei has come to dangle at the crossroads between artist and human rights activist, and edging closer to the latter could endanger his access and freedom as the former. Just look at his fellow dissident, Liu Xiaobo, an incarcerated political prisoner who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Even his father, Chinese poet Ai Qing, was denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. In 1958 he was sent to a labor camp in Xinjiang with his wife.
Of course, for all of Weiwei’s radical works, it’s important to remember that he is not calling for a revolution to take down the government, but rather, through his online presence and work, he is begging his fellow citizens to be expressive – to react. As he admits of himself in the film, “Ai Weiwei has become a brand for liberal thinking and individualism.”
Yet inside his studio in Beijing, Alison Klayman gives us a gentle, soft-spoken man with a contagious smile and poignant sense of humor. He’s also a father to 40-some-odd cats, one of which opens doors – a playful and surreal scene that begins the film.
In January 2011, the Chinese the government knocked down Weiwei’s Shanghai studio due to accusations that the artist had erected the structure without the necessary planning permission. Weiwei denies the allegation, claiming that the application and planning process was under government supervision the entire time. The studio was initially encouraged by high-level officials from Shanghai who were looking to build upon the city’s cultural centers.
Three months later, Ai Weiwei disappeared, leading to an international campaign and countless petitions pleading that the Chinese government release him. After almost three months of secret detention, Ai was released. The reason for his incarceration: tax evasion. Due to restrictive bail conditions, Ai is forbidden to discuss his case and has lost all rights to freely express himself online. He is also prohibited from leaving Beijing without permission for one year.
Towards the end of the film, shortly after his release, Weiwei is filmed exiting a car and heading toward his home. Paparazzi and journalists shove microphones, cameras and flash bulbs in his face. But the Ai Weiwei we have been watching for the last 90 minutes is no more. He is tired, frightened and speechless. Never quiet and never sorry in a standoff with a controlling government, it seems something has now changed for Ai. They finally got him; finding a way to break his spirit and keep him silent.
To pick up where WeiWei is unable to, droves of his fans and supporters have hit the keyboard and are preserving his outspoken voice as part of the digital conversation by ‘reTweeting’ his quotes. It’s a bold and brazen move of which Weiwei is likely proud.
China might have to succumb to changes in its system.