“I happen to be a brand for individual thinking and liberalism I think.”
– Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
On 18th June 2012 I attended a preview screening of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, followed by a Q&A session with director Alison Klayman at Curzon Cinema, Soho.
Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Opening with a clip of one of Ai Weiwei’s forty cats comically flinging himself at a door handle, Alison Klayman introduces her debut documentary film following the Chinese artist and activist.
As the cat jumps four-foot into the air to pull down the handle, the audience cannot help but laugh. This unexpected exposition, at first seemingly absurd, becomes significant in symbolising how Ai perceives the world around him; he reflects: “The difference between humans and cats is that when humans open doors they close the door behind them, but cats leave them open.”
The picture becomes rapidly darker as Klayman documents Ai’s constant fight against the brutality and corruption of the Chinese government, and the devastating repercussions of speaking out against the regime.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in the midst of protests from grieving parents over the shoddy ‘tofu-construction’ of the schools all falling on deaf ears, Ai began investigating. He tracked down the parent’s of as many of the dead children as he could and attacked the government’s attempts to cover-up the extent of the devastation as he accumulated over 5000 children’s names. In August that year, Ai tried to testify in fellow investigator Tan Zuoren’s trail – the result, as sound recording in the film proves, was a beating from the police which left Ai’s head hideously battered and bruised.
Despite these injuries, Ai produced the artwork Remembering on the outside wall of Haus der Kunst where an exhibition of his art was being held. Remembering was made out of 9000 schoolchildren’s backpacks hung in rows along the wall.
Revolving round significant moments which began to hit news headlines in the West, Klayman condenses years of Ai’s work into a short cinematic time-space. Most shaking of all, perhaps, is Ai’s arrest on 3rd April 2011 and the subsequent disappearances of Ai’s accountant, studio partner and driver. The various authorities, unable to agree on exactly why Ai was arrested, caused a storm in the West as they called for his release. The Tate Modern, the location of Ai’s Sunflower Seeds exhibition, constructed a sign on their exterior reading “Release Ai Weiwei.” Ai was released on 22nd June 2011.
Though these dark incidents that gained worldwide media attention for Ai constitute the main strand of the film’s narrative, in the film’s underbelly is a lightness created by the personal impressions and human moments of Ai and his helpers. At one point, Ai’s cameraman comically goes face-to-face (or camera-to-camera) with a police officer who is recording him, at another more sentimental moment Ai teases his young son as they eat melon together.
As Klayman herself notes, a whole film could be made out of any one aspect of Ai’s life or any one piece of his artworks, but Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry aims to create an overall awareness of Ai’s work and the situation in China. There are many unsung heroes speaking out for freedom, but as it stands Ai is the figurehead for these movements – his image represents an army of brave individuals putting their lives at risk in the struggle for a reformed China. These individuals are not fearless like many have said, for everyone feels fear, but they realise that it is important not to allow fear to dictate your life and allow for injustices to exist.
“To live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom.”
– Ai Weiwei, Guardian
Q&A session with director Alison Klayman
Alison Klayman fielded some difficult and harsh questions in the question and answer session which followed straight on from the film screening at Curzon Soho.
One of the first questions concerned the lack of anonymity of those featured in the film and the possible, and potentially terrible, consequences of their inclusion on-screen: “what kind of responsibility do you have as a filmmaker to those people you filmed?”
The point was made that Ai’s, and many of the talking-heads’, international recognition goes some way towards protecting them and that they choose to continue to be outspoken and disruptive against their country’s regime. However, the ‘smaller’ people in the background and those who aren’t afforded any fame do not have such protection.
Klayman, though somewhat shaken by the force with which this question was addressed, did well in articulating the choices made by many to follow Ai’s activities and their awareness in being filmed. The argument, as the head of Curzon Soho interviewing Klayman noted, is cyclical – if the film was not made, people are not represented and awareness is not created; if it is, part of that process of creating awareness endangers others.
In my opinion, what really came across during the Q&A, and drove the objectivity of the film, is that Klayman had no prior knowledge of Ai’s work and had met him only once before agreeing to make the documentary. That is not to say she is at all detached from the subject matter and Ai as a person, but rather recognised its importance immediately, and that the opportunity for growth in their relationship and Klayman’s understanding of Ai’s fight was rewarding to the creation of the documentary.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry doesn’t pander to and exasperatingly praise Ai – Ai has a following who call themselves “Ai-fans” and whom refer to him as what roughly translates to “Ai God.” Instead, Klayman establishes an understanding of Ai, his humanity and his struggle – one which should be recognised as extending to us too.
This is not just a film.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, dir. Alison Klayman (2012, USA)
A twitter-feed of the Curzon Soho screening and Q&A can be read here.
Follow Ai Weiwei on Twitter: @aiww