The story of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is the definitive story of the struggle against injustice in the 21st Century. The overarching theme of Ai Weiwei’s life and work is his quest for transparency and he practices what he preaches.
First time director Alison Klayman has constructed an intimate and revealing portrait of a fascinating man. It’s easy to believe she feels incredibly lucky to have been in Ai’s company at the exact moment he was beginning to gain international attention. She was also blessed that her subject happens to be very open and honest about his life and work.
Having only come into Ai’s presence well into his quest to discover the names of over 5000 children killed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, director Klayman does a wonderful job telling of Ai’s time in New York, the story of his father and the recent history of his conflicts with the Chinese establishment.
There is a scene in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry in which Teacher Ai (as he is affectionately known by his supporters) tweets that he will be eating at an outdoor restaurant in Chengdu at a specific time. Shortly afterwards he sits calmly eating local cuisine while a whirlwind of followers and policemen surround the table. It is a revealing moment for both Chinese society and Ai Weiwei as an artist. His very existence has become an ongoing art project in which he strips away the pretences and facades of the people and the authorities yet he sits calmly in the eye of the tornado, chewing his pig’s trotters.
Ai Weiwei was one of the first generation of young Chinese to study abroad so in a way the fallout that came after his condemnation of the Beijing Olympics – whose famous Bird’s Nest stadium he helped build – is the effect of that generation coming home to roost. His time abroad explicitly informs his methods as we see when he tries to sue a police officer who assaulted him. He uses these simple acts to prove the ineffectiveness of the judiciary processes in China that we take for granted in the West.
Ai Weiwei’s history and life are recounted through a mixture of talking-heads interviews and video and photographic footage, but the most poignant moments in the film are undoubtedly Ai’s interactions with his family, which are captured and presented with sensitivity and reserve. At no point does the film feel disingenuous or mythmaking. Rather it seems as if Ai Weiwei truly is a force of nature who fits into the canon of historical figures who have taken a stand for human rights and freedom of speech.
The one thing that isn’t covered in any depth in the film is exactly how influential Ai Weiwei is in China. While he has a large international following, many Chinese aren’t even familiar with the names of Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo. But what Klayman shows us even with the melancholic ending is that men like Ai Weiwei will not bring about change all on their own, they are merely a foot in the door on the road to greater freedom and openness in China and the world at large.
Playing exclusively in Light House Cinema from 10 August 2012.