NEW YORK — Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is trying to rewrite his government’s restrictive limits on freedom of association by erasing the barriers between life, art and politics. It’s a process requiring the most stubborn persistence.
The first feature film about China’s most internationally recognizable critic, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” opened in New York City last week and is rendered with an original style by Alison Klayman in her directorial debut.
Klayman offers a version of Ai that is contemplative, humorous and artfully aware of how China’s history informs the frame of each scene. An iconic image in the film captures Ai scrolling through Twitter pages for hours as he asks, “How can we translate our history into today’s language?”
He uses the social media tool liberally, sometimes up to eight hours a day. Though Twitter is blocked by authorities in China, it has morphed into a hugely popular form of communication throughout the country. The block can be easily sidestepped by signing on through a third-party server overseas.
“While I was filming this story, I really was excited by the complexity that it showed about the state of free expression in China,” Klayman said. “It’s not a story about what people can’t do in China, it is about how much Ai Weiwei and others are able to achieve through the Internet and the courage of their convictions.”
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While working in Beijing as a young journalist in 2008, Klayman crossed paths with Ai and began filming him during that first encounter. They continued regular filming sessions into 2010.
“I wanted to make a film about Ai Weiwei was because I wanted to make a movie about a creative and principled artist, willing to make calculated risks to push society to grapple with its own shortcomings,” said Klayman.
Ai and Klayman demonstrate a shared desire to celebrate freedom of expression in the name of reform. Klayman was the sole cinematographer to film her subject throughout the documentary, while also running sound at the same time.
“I want to prove the system is not working. You can’t simply say that the system is not working,” Ai tells the audience. “You have to work through it.”
Albeit fast-paced, "Never Sorry" never feels stretched, and some of the most powerful moments are often the quietest. For example, in response to being named the most powerful artist of 2011 by ArtReview, Ai answers, “I do not feel powerful. But maybe to be powerful is to be fragile.”
When asked to categorize his artistic type, Ai replies, “I’m more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move, than I make a move.”
For example, after garnering international attention in 2008 as an artistic collaborator in the winning design bid for the Beijing National Stadium, Ai publicly denounced the Olympics as “party propaganda.”
The monumental progression in Chinese life towards a more “open society” is what incites Ai to keep pushing the boundaries.
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"I think a lot of people — especially artists and intellectuals — just try to make excuses," he said in an interview with the New Yorker.
But that isn’t Ai Weiwei’s style.
In 2008, poorly constructed government schools (called “tofu construction” throughout the film), killed over 5,000 children during the Sichuan earthquake. Ai’s office sent more that a hundred and fifty letters to government agencies requesting information on the earthquake victims, under the Freedom of Government Information Law. Ten months after the quake, Chinese government officials had released no information on the number of fatalities or names of the victims.
In speaking of the disaster officials, Ai demonstrates why he remains one of China’s most outspoken domestic critics: “They hide the facts in the name of maintaining stability,” he says. “They intimidate, they jail, they persecute parents who demand the truth, and they brazenly stomp on the constitution and the basic rights of man.”
Ai launched his own truth-finding mission by organizing volunteers and sending them to Sichuan for answers. They collected more than 5,000 names. The government’s official tally was released later with a count of 5,335 names.
On August 12, 2009, local police entered Ai’s hotel room in Chengdu and beat him. The injuries he sustained included a blow to the head that later required treatment for a brain hemorrhage.
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During mid-October of the same year, he received official notice from the Shanghai Municipal Government that his newly built studio (completed in July after twelve months of construction and close to one million dollars) would be destroyed. The studio was razed January 2011 and only two months later he was taken into government custody at Beijing Capital Airport.
Weiwei was released after 81 days in detention where he was subject to psychological torture, on condition that he would no longer use social media, give interviews about his detention, nor leave Beijing for one year.
Klayman believes that the space to express dissent in China had shrunk since she made the documentary.
“One of the important lessons I have taken away is the importance of being brave enough to speak out, or turn your camera on, and that this is the most powerful weapon against censorship,” Klayman said. “So much of censorship starts with self-censorship. This is the worst kind of censorship, the one we impose on ourselves out of fear or apathy or the belief that we can’t make a change.”
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 91 minutes
Playing: In limited release