Photo by Sundance Selects
The subject of Alison Klayman's prize-winning documentary, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," is the portly, bearded artist who through a sense of moral outrage and sheer stubbornness became a perennial thorn in the side of the Chinese government. That is, it was until the spring of 2011 when he turned into an international cause celebre.
Ai Weiwei is a magnetic character who's a natural subject for a documentary, even if he's a particularly talented and witty conceptual artist rather than a vocal critic of a ruthless and unaccountable government. Klayman captures him with his menagerie of stray cats in his studio outside of Beijing as he works on his massive art projects and delivers caustic zingers about Chinese culture. She also gives an overview of Ai's most famous works. He filled the Tate Gallery in London with millions upon millions of porcelain sunflower seeds hand-painted by Chinese peasants. He bought Han dynasty urns and painted the Coca-Cola logo on them. And, most tellingly, he photographed himself flipping the bird at Tiananmen Square, the seat of Chinese government power. Ai might be an internationally recognized artist, but his real talent seems to be the ability to get under the skin of the famously thin-skinned Chinese government. "If you don't push, nothing happens," he quips in English to the camera.
Ai first got international attention by designing Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the Olympics and then protested against the event, decrying it as little more than a propaganda stunt for the government. But what shifted the artist into full crusader mode was the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Many of the 70,000 people who died did so not as a direct result of plate tectonics, but because of shoddy building construction, especially some government schools, which went from standing structures to bloodied rubble in the blink of an eye. Ai Weiwei took it upon himself to document on his blog all the students who perished in those schools, creating a memorial to those who died because of government corruption. The government was not amused. His blog was shut down.
When Ai arrived in Sichuan to testify on behalf of another earthquake activist, he was detained and beaten by the cops so severely that he required brain surgery. Instead of being cowed, Ai doubled down. He posted the beating to the internet (cameras were rolling during the event) and tweeted his beating and then sought justice through the China's capricious legal system. If the powers that be were going to claim to be governed under the rule of law, he would to force them to follow through with that lie to the very end. "Chinese law is a big joke," he says at one point. Using his international prestige and massive Twitter following, Ai Weiwei evolved into essentially a one-man opposite force. It's hard not to respect the industrial-sized set of cajones on this guy. At one point, he tweeted, "What can they do to me?"
That answer came in April 2011, when Ai disappeared. He was held for 81 days, enduring psychological torture -- two guards were assigned to stare at him every minute of the day. After a huge international outcry, he was released in June of last year, looking shaken and gaunt but ultimately unbowed.
As Klayman's documentary shows, power hates transparency, be it the Chinese government's criminal corruption or, in the country, the current administration's Orwellian secrecy surrounding its drone program. It takes heroes like Ai Weiwei to force those powers to open up.
See the trailer for 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry':