The morning after the suppression of Tiananmen Square protests of June 1989 by Chinese military, a unknown protester, stood in front of the lead tank marching into the Square and repeatedly shifted his position to block the tank from maneuvering around him. The act of protest was relayed all around the world and the man was called as ‘Tank Man’ (it was one of the iconic images of 20th century). Internationally renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, like the man who stood in front of ‘tanks’, challenges the entire Chinese government and tries to unmask the authorities’ institutionalized hypocrisy. American journalist Alison Klayman’s debut documentary feature “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012) sharply captures the provocative artist’s life, profiling his defiant, humble and creative spirit.
Born in 1957 in Beijing, Weiwei and his family were labeled as ‘class enemies’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-67) and were forced to do hard labor. His father, a poet, was sentenced to almost 20 years of hard labor and Ai grew up distrustful of authority and government, but believed in the transformative power of artistic expressions. When his name was cleared in early 1980’s, after Mao’s death, Ai went to US to study and work. He returned to homeland in 1993 and curated one of his most controversial exhibits, which consisted of series of images, where Weiwei extended his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square and other places in China. Despite what’s seen as dissident attitude, Ai was welcomed to design Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium (in 2008), which earned international fame to the artist as well as Beijing Olympics.
Nevertheless, Ai earned the wrath of government, when he denounced Olympics in China as ‘political propaganda’ (“I’m not for the kind of Olympics that tells the ordinary citizens that they should not participate” said Ai). Klayman’s documentary is set around 2010 and 2011, when Ai’s artistic achievements and criticism of Chinese government gained wide attention and gathered wide support. Ai was seen as a radical element, when he launched his own investigation to learn about the number of children, who died in the 2008 Siachuan Earthquake (the government refused to release the death toll, stating that it is ‘confidential). Through relentless probing, Ai compiled a list of more than 5,212 dead children, who were all victims of poorly constructed government schools. In 2009, in Munich exhibition “So Sorry”), Weiwei included a work called “Remembering”, designed by installing 9,000 backpacks spelling out sentence ‘She lived happily on this Earth for 7 years’ in Chinese lettering (to remember the children of Siachuan Earthquake).
From then on, Ai Weiwei had a singular mission to record or says something about the life around him before the persons in authority distort the truth or silence him. He used ‘twitter’ to communicate with his many followers and to stay one step ahead of the authorities. Cops beat him up in a hotel room, causing brain hemorrhage, but he recovers and files lawsuit after lawsuit to hope that some action will be taken against such brutality.When the government decides to demolish his newly built studio, he arranges a public dinner in the night, before demolition. At one the interviewer asks his approach to art and activism, for which Weiwei states: “I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move, I make a move”. His art is also as subversive as his activism modes. Ai paints Coca-Cola logo in Han dynasty vase; his masterwork of 100-million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, attained from Chinese town is displayed at London’s Tate Gallery to contemplate on the power of people’s force. At one point, a Chinese art curator comments that ‘despite Ai’s renowned status and power, he might be crushed by the system’. That fear becomes truth, when Ai in April 2011 was arrested and detained for 81 days, without telling his whereabouts (even to the family). After release, Ai was banned to use social media, forbidden to leave Beijing, to give interviews and was handed a tax bill of USD $2.4 million. But, still he in his own ways had tried to break the restrictions (in 2012 video footage, Ai tells “Maybe being powerful is to be fragile”).
With an overgrown beard, big stature and a caustic sense of humor, Klayman perfectly captures the irresistible artist as he often expresses his sharp viewpoints to the camera. Although the director’s mixture of interviews is a bit ordinary, the archival footage and some keen observational view points diffuse within us the radical nature of the documentary’s subject. Klayman also excels in weaving balanced portrait about Weiwei’s challenging art as well as political ideologies. Most importantly, the documentary probes into artists’ fear. When asked about being afraid of personal safety, Ai calmly responds “I’m more fearful, and that’s why I act brave. I know the danger is there, and if you don’t act, it becomes stronger”.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (91 minutes) is a highly inspiring and enchanting documentary about an artist, trying to open new creative doors for raising voices against status quo and autocracy.