Ai Weiwei Documentary Reveals Role of Art and Agitation in Improving Human Rights in China


The documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," directed, produced, filmed, and co-edited by Alison Klayman, is a powerful tribute to the artist and agitator at the forefront of China's tumultuous human rights landscape. Both a portrait of Ai and a commentary on activism in a State-controlled society, it's a must-see movie that has already been lauded by Sundance, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, and Human Rights Watch, among many others.

Ai's struggle with the State's central government has been no secret. After a personal investigation into the deaths of schoolchildren in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai was beaten by a police officer in Chengdu in 2009 and his troubles hardly stopped there. He was placed under house arrest in November 2010 when authorities demolished his newly constructed studio in Shanghai and prevented him from leaving China at the end of that year, which also marked the year when Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ai was himself arrested in April 2011 at the Beijing Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong, and released in June after nearly three months' detention. Much is made in the film about this period of imprisonment and the charges against him of tax evasion and other suspected crimes. It's generally understood these charges are, at least for the most part, baseless.

Klayman's film takes the viewer on a journey that contextualizes both Ai's exhibitions and his role in the current social movement for freedom of expression. Weaving together one-on-one interviews, hand-held camera footage, and high-production vignettes, Kalyman creates a rich, if at times, contrived, tapestry of deeply personal storytelling. From Ai's youth during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s up to his current highly publicized struggle against the government, we come to understand how Ai has transformed into, as one artist called him, 'Beijing's Any Warhol.'

Ai was raised in Xinjiang, near the labor camp where his father was imprisoned from 1958 through the 1960s and spent his young adulthood living in the U.S. during the 80s and 90s, mainly in New York's East Village. Some of his more provocative art collections include his "Study in Perspective," a series of photographs featuring Ai flipping the bird to major landmarks like Tiananmen Square in Beijing and and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and his "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" photographs (below).

The Han Dynasty urn photos, which are referenced several times in the documentary, are enigmatic of Ai's stance toward the constructs of China's sociopolitical norms. In a darkly ironic way, the Cultural Revolution slogan "Smash the Old World, Build a New World" is a fitting reference. Like the urn in this photo series, Ai embodies the belief that sometimes we must deconstruct what's considered "tradition" in order to shape a new path for ourselves and society. It's not a disdain for the old, but rather a regard for modernity and recognition that sometimes we must defy convention in order to be on the right side of history.

On July 20, 2012, Ai's latest tax appeal was rejected by Chinese courts. To this day, he continues to live at his FAKE Design studio in Beijing's 258 art district, but his influence extends without limit. Across China, he has become the mouthpiece for people otherwise silenced or repressed. In attempting to silence Ai, China's government has only shed light on inequity and injustice permeating the national system.

And exhibitions of his works continue worldwide. Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads" is currently on display outside Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a strong signal of where this institution stands on the issue of Chinese human rights. Princeton's display of Ai's work will include a number of public events, culminating "in a visit by Ai to the Princeton University campus on October 10, 2012, should he be allowed to leave China,"according to the school's website.

Go see "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" and if you have the opportunity, check out his artwork online or in person. It's clear he's helping build a new world that can't be ignored for long.

This article was originally printed on The Culture Crossing at