A documentary film featured at Dead Center Film Festival examines the life and accomplishments of Ai Wei Wei, the controversial Chinese artist and political activist.
“Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry,” directed by Allison Klayman, introduces the rebellious and bold personality of the artist, his struggles against limited freedom in China, and the journey he takes to investigate “Tofu Construction,” or shabby construction of vast buildings that some believe resulted in the structural collapse of schools during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
In the film, Ai criticizes Chinese authority for failing to investigate the deaths of thousands of school children after the earthquake. He publically called for the Chinese government to look into the issue and take responsibility for the destruction. After several attempts, Ai began his own investigation, recording the names and information of those children who died in the tragedy. Because of his efforts, fans and volunteers refer to him as “Ai Shen” or “Ai God,” which is pronounced the same as “love God” in Chinese.
Ai’s work is unlike traditional Chinese art; it focuses more on action and the experimental aspects of art. Klayman highlights Ai’s unconventional choices of media such as millions of porcelain sunflower seeds in his installment at Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London, and thousands of backpacks in his art work “Remembering,” at Haus der Kunst, Munich.
Ai also records his activities and work through photos and video and posts them online to show the world what he considers to be corruption in China. An example of this is a photo he posted of himself giving Tian Men Square “the finger.” The film illustrates Ai’s concept of contextual art: It grows as society grows; it evolves as society evolves.
In addition to his role as an artist, Klayman also reveals Ai as a political activist. The camera secretly taped a Chengdu police officer beating Ai in the head at a hotel during his trip to Chengdu, to testify for Liu Xiaobo, a fellow Chinese activist who was jailed for “defaming the central government.” Ai immediately broadcast the incident through Twitter, openly challenging Chinese authority.
Klayman compares Ai’s revolutionary spirit to that of his father, Ai Qing, a prominent poet who was forced into seclusion to be “re-educated” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
In the film, Ai and his mother Gao Ying, emphasize that conditions in China will never change if its people continue to fear and shrink away from injustice. As much as Gao Ying dislikes the idea, her son has become a brand for freedom. His activities in social media such as Twitter demonstrate the power and importance of social media in eradicating China’s confinement of thoughts and ideas. The bold statement “F*** you, Mother Country!” appears in his online posts and videos frequently. It is perhaps his most prolific expression of disdain for his home country.
In 2011, Ai Wei Wei was arrested by the Chinese authorities, on charges of tax fraud. His fans and supporters from around the world protested for his release. Ai rejected all interviews after he was finally released the same year, claiming that he was on bail and was prohibited to talk to the press. He soon, however, resumed his Twitter activities.
The film leaves the audience wondering what will be the fate of this political and social activist. For audiences in the other parts of the world, “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry” is an examination of a culture that continues to exist behind a closed door.
– Li Lin