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“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”: Exhilarating, Inspiring Film Portrait of China’s Conscientious Objector

Ai Weiwei in one of many confrontations with authorities, as seen in Alison Klayman’s new film, “Ai Weiwei Never Sorry,” a Sundance Selects release.
Photo by Ted Alcorn

On Tuesday, the first anniversary of the beginning of dissident artist Ai Weiwei‘s 81-day detention by Chinese authorities, I attended an advance screening in New York of Alison Klayman‘s powerful cinematic biography, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. A master of all modes of self-expression, Ai is constantly filming and being filmed as part of his relentless campaign to spotlight corruption and oppose the oppressors. His buoyant spirit and panoply of pointed pranks transform a grim situation into an engaging odyssey.

You come away wondering how you can feel so exhilarated and inspired by a film documenting one man’s impossible struggle against an iron-fisted regime. It’s the effect of spending 91 minutes under the influence of an irrepressible giant who has the perseverance and unfailing sense of (dark) humor of someone who never feels sorry for himself and never concedes defeat.

As the legions of “Teacher Ai’s” devoted followers can attest, the Weiwei way—strategic political activism through art—is energizingly contagious. You leave the theater less worried for his future welfare under harsh circumstances than convinced that he will somehow prevail in his efforts to humanize the inhumane.

In a written statement, Klayman expressed her hope that her film will “move audiences to interrogate themselves. What is my vision for a better future? What would I risk to express myself? The most powerful inpact this film can have is inspiring a new crop of outspoken artists, activists and citizens with a strong vision for improving the future in their respective societies.”

In the film, this message is only implied, not stated. The director wisely turns over the proceedings to Ai and those who know him best (other Chinese artists and, notably, American writer Evan Osnos, who profiled him in the New Yorker). She provides us with a you-are-there perspective on all the well known highlights and low points of his life. It must have taken considerable courage to capture politically subversive footage in a country notably averse to anyone’s filming anything that could cast it in a bad light (as I myself discovered during my 2010 visit to China, soon after the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize).

The only “shortcoming” of Klayman’s movie is that events have already overtaken it and will continue to do so. Its protagonist (whom Klayman began filming in 2008) is always finding new and ingenious ways to goad and expose the authorities and their minions.

The latest developments were a new skirmish over his tax case and his shortlived installation on Tuesday of several webcams in his own house (including one pointing directly at his bed). He explained the self-surveillance project this way to Agence France-Presse:

In my life, there is so much surveillance and monitoring—my
phone, my computer….Our office has been searched, I have been
searched, every day I am being followed, there are surveillance cameras in front of my house. [Klayman’s film repeatedly zeros in on those cameras.]

So I was wondering, why don’t I put some [cameras] in there so
people can see all my activities? I can do that and I hope the other
party [authorities] can also show some transparency.

Good luck with that.

Ai is also posting a blizzard of official documents on his Google+ page.

I (as well as others) have previously described Ai’s maneuvers as a “cat-and-mouse” game. During the film, he more aptly termed it “a chess game”: He makes his move and waits for the other side’s counterattack.

The government immediately parried the webcam gambit, putting Ai in “check”: He was ordered to shut down his self-directed cameras. (Ai complied.) I had visited Ai’s shortlived webcam site (after seeing this initial report in the NY Times) and saw four images. Now that webpage is blank. Here’s a webcam shot of him sleeping, which another “voyeur” (as he called us) had posted to Twitter.

You can listen to Ai’s description to the BBC of the webcam affair, here.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens on July 27 in New York and in August nationally. In the meantime, you can see him on Apr. 13, when Ai will be the first artist featured in the sixth season of PBS‘s Art21 series.

His post-detention, one-year ban on traveling outside Beijing is supposed to end in June (although his continued provocations might jeopardize that). Might there be an outside chance that he will attend the New York premiere?

I guess I’m still under the influence of his (and Klayman’s) anything-is-possible worldview.

an ArtsJournal blog