Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was the opening film of the 2012 Hot Docs festival, screening at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema on Thursday April 26th. Check out all our Hot Docs coverage here.
For a Chinese artist to be named in Time’s people of the year list is quite remarkable but to call Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I way-way”) simply an “artist” is to do a real disservice to everything else he stands for.
Weiwei came to international prominence for being one of the design consultants on the “Bird’s Nest” Beijing Olympic Stadium, and then holding one of the few dissenting voices from within China as he boycotted the games for not being inclusive or open enough.
He embarked on a series of investigations into whether the Chinese authorities had followed proper building practices in the construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. More than 5,000 children died in these “tofu-skin schools”, and Weiwei went on to honour their memory by mounting thousands of backpacks onto the walls of Munich’s Haus der Kunst for his “So Sorry” exhibition.
Running parallel to his public art is a campaign against a Chengdu police officer who assaulted him one night. Weiwei had to get surgery to deal with swelling in his skull following the incident and documented every moment of the procedure, recovery and attempted legal action against the authorities. Weiwei’s use of Twitter sees him bringing the hypocrisy and oppression at play in modern China to an international audience with the simple act of sharing a photograph of himself lying in bed with his head wrapped in bandages.
In many ways the Sichuan earthquake activism and Weiwei’s bureaucratic campaign to get justice against the police-man who assaulted him feel much more important than what is presented as his “art”. Like many large-scale artists (messrs Warhol and Hirst come to mind), Weiwei employs workers to do almost all of his art production. He is still the ideas man and we do see him in his studio directing things, but the token shot of him painting some of the millions of the sunflower seed exhibition at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall feels almost like he’s just playing along for the cameras.
Sometimes a first-time documentary director just gets lucky. In 2008, Alison Klayman happened to be living in China as a recent journalism graduate thinking about a career in documentaries. A friend asks her to take some footage of a new photo exhibition of Weiwei’s time in New York in the 1980s. She builds up a relationship with him and begins to document his work.
And so over the next two and a half years she has access to a man whose profile seems to be expanding exponentially. Following him as he confronts Chinese authorities, travels to New York and Europe and spends time with his family and contemporaries. Weiwei is a sel-aware, warm and infectious man, and it’s hard not to want to root for him. However the flippancy with which he deals with a child he fathered outside of his marriage is a little strange, and seems to be the only black mark on a very strong character.
In April 2011, Klayman’s film reaches a new level of drama that any documentary film-maker would crave – Weiwei disappears. It transpires that he has been arrested on suspicion of tax evasion and is being held in an undisclosed location. The fact that this move by the Chinese government comes when the Arab Spring is gaining traction across the world shows just how dangerous Weiwei’s profile is; silencing him considered to be preferential to allowing him to spearhead any protests.
When Weiwei disappears you would expect Klayman to investigate or spend more time with his family and friends but instead we don’t get much in the way of explanation. You get the sense that her approach to the documentary was simply “follow Weiwei and see what happens”, understandably you’re dealing with the Chinese communist party so you’d hardly expect candid interviews with President Hu Jintao but it does leave the whole film feeling like a little bit like a lost opportunity.
USA / Directed By: Alison Klayman / Starring: Ai Weiwei, Ying Gao, Changwei Gu / 91min / Documentary / General Release: 27 July 2012 (US/Canada), 10 August 2012 (Ireland/UK)