I Did It My Weiwei
Published on July 23rd, 2012 | by Sandra Larriva0
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on Friday, July 27 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center.
Running time: 91 minutes; Rated R.
Out of the forty cats living in Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s studio in Beijing, only one knows how to open doors.
“Where did this intelligence come from? All the other cats watch us opening doors,” Ai wonders. “So I was thinking, if I never met this cat that can open doors, I wouldn’t know cats can open doors.”
Ai himself is a door-opening cat of sorts, and if you see him at work in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” the latest documentary on the internationally acclaimed artist and dissident, you will get a glimpse of what he’s capable of.
Living in a country where censorship is everywhere, Ai defies the norm by speaking when he’s not allowed to and going where he’s not expected, skillfully opening doors in some places and persistently kicking closed doors in others.
The consequences? Chinese authorities have placed surveillance cameras outside Ai’s home and studio, detained him for eighty-one days during a crackdown on political activists, demolished one of his studios days after it was completed, and issued a $2.4 million bill for alleged tax evasion, which supporters helped foot through donations. Today, a travel ban prevents Ai from traveling outside of China.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” journalist and filmmaker Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary, presents an exploration of key issues facing contemporary China through the eyes and work of its most famous and outspoken living artist, architect, blogger, and documentary filmmaker. Ai’s relentless and continuous fight for freedom and human rights is well represented here, and his humanity is skillfully revealed in several intimate scenes.
The film takes us through pivotal moments when Ai emerged from his role as an artist to become a digital-age freedom fighter. In 2008, he snubbed the Beijing Olympics after having co-designed its centerpiece, the so-called “Bird’s Nest” stadium.
“I am not for a kind of Olympics that forces migrants out of the city to tell ordinary citizens they should not participate, but they just make a ‘fake smile’ for the foreigners and become purely party’s propaganda,” Ai tells the camera.
He refused to attend the games’ opening ceremony and while his comments were not widely disseminated in China, the international press was all over it. This marked the beginning of his involvement in political affairs.
Another key moment, as we see in the film, is Ai’s activism in the aftermath of the earthquake that killed over 70,000 in southwestern China in 2008. More than 5,000 children were crushed to death by what experts said were poorly built schools, but authorities did not release that death toll until almost one year later.
Teacher Ai, as some followers call him, collected the names of thousands of victims and posted them on his blog, doing “work the government should be doing,” in the words of a fellow artist. Shortly after the victim’s names went up, the authorities shut down his blog. Ai turned to Twitter instead, where he now has over 155,000 followers.
Ai basically lives on Twitter—as shown by the numerous computer screenshots in the film—which helps him promote his cause. When authorities prevented him from testifying at an earthquake activist’s trial by detaining him and others in a hotel room and delivering a blow to his head, he posted post-brain surgery photos from the hospital, tweeting: “You said you wanted proof? Here you go, officer #7998.”
Some of the most striking moments in the film have to do with the students killed during the earthquake. Footage from the tragedy showed dozens of backpacks mixed in with the rubble and scattered all over the floor. In 2011, Ai created “Remembering” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Nine-thousand multi-colored backpacks hung from the museum’s façade to spell, “She lived happily on this earth for seven years,” a reference to a letter written by the mother of a girl killed during the quake.
It is through his involvement with the quake aftermath that we understand why art curator Feng Boyi says that Ai’s role “has surpassed that of an artist alone.” And it is precisely for that reason that the Chinese authorities have been after him ever since. In “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” we see the seemingly fearless side of the dissident who keeps pushing doors open, regardless of who is behind them. But we also get a glimpse of his more tender self, a father who fights today so that his son’s generation doesn’t have to. Both sides come together effortlessly in this documentary.