A new documentary film, ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’, portrays China’s most iconic artist and activist. It was shown at the opening night gala of Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, which took place in Toronto, Canada, in May 2012, and it was reviewed with superlatives such as ‘powerful’, ‘essential’, ‘provocative’ and ‘stunning’.
American filmmaker Alison Kalyman, 27, spent three years making this time-lapse picture of Ai Weiwei on the front lines of free speech in China.
In an article entitled ‘The documentaries of tortured artists’, Brian D. Johnson described the film as “both intimate and monumental—like its subject, whose work ranges from epic installations to impish tweets.” He continues:
While other artists wrestle with inner demons, Ai is tangling with a totalitarian state, working on a scale that includes vast installations, photo exhibits, guerrilla documentaries and tweets, which he fires off like Confucian koans. (“There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship … and no interactive communications as exciting as the gang-fight style in the digital world.”)
Ai Weiwei shows how the transparency of social media, with its myriad facets, is transforming the documentary genre. There’s a wonderfully absurd scene of an outdoor dinner party, which Ai convenes on a restaurant patio, inviting fans to join him via Twitter. When police show up and start shooting video of the gathering, the artist’s own videographer gets right in their face and shoots back, while Ai snaps photos on his phone and Klayman’s camera films everyone filming everyone else. “You could call Weiwei an open-source documentary subject,” says the director. “He’s constantly creating the news story that surrounds him.”
Klayman spends almost three years watching Ai’s story heat up as the artist plays cat and mouse with the state. After the government shuts down his website in 2009, he vaults the great firewall of China to subvert censorship on Twitter. We see him taunt the plainclothes police who follow him constantly. Video rolls when he’s beaten by police in a hotel room, when authorities demolish his Shanghai studio with a bulldozer—and when he emerges, thin and shaken, from 81 days of solitary conﬁnement after his 2011 arrest on allegations of tax fraud.
Now on parole, Ai is forbidden to talk to Western media—a rule he often violates, blaming his lack of self-discipline. (“C’mon, I can’t even lose weight!” he told The Economist.) A trickster with Zen gravitas, Ai has created his own cult of personality as a kind of an aphoristic anti-Mao, or bully Buddha.
He set up surveillance cameras in his home and streamed a 24-hour video feed online, his riposte to the police surveillance cameras outside. The government took down his website within two days. But even as he fights for freedom of expression, Ai admits that state censorship fuels his art. In a parole-breaking column in the British newspaper The Guardian on 16 April 2012, he wrote, “without censorship it would be much less interesting. I often see my cats put their toys in an area littered with obstacles, and their play becomes interesting and dramatic.”
On 21 June 2012, Ai Weiwei wrote another column in The Guardian in which he talks about his 81 days of detention and reflects on his situation today:
“A year after my release, I am more convinced than ever of the need to stand up to China’s monstrous machine. (…)
There are so many moments when you feel desperate and hopeless and you feel that’s the end of it. But still, the next morning, you wake up, you hear the birds singing and the wind blows. You have to ask yourself: can you afford to give up the fight for freedom of expression or human dignity? As an artist, this is an essential value that can never be given up.
I often ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again. My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.”
‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’ is the first feature length documentary on the iconic Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.
It opens in US theaters on 27 July 2012, and in the UK on 10 August 2012.
The Guardian – 21 June 2012:
Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom
A year after my release, I am more convinced than ever of the need to stand up to China’s monstrous machine. By Ai Weiwei.
Beijing, Art Media Agency – 21 June 2012:
Ai Weiwei banned from leaving China
Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei is banned from leaving China although his one-year probation is ending on 21 June 2012.
Profile of Ai Weiwei on The Guardian:
50-minutes BBC-documentary: ‘Ai Weiwei, Without Fear or Favor’
Uploaded to youtube on 1 January 2011