Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Details: 91 mins, United States,
Synopsis: Chinese artist and Ai Weiwei is famous for his design of Beijing's Bird's Nest Stadium, his 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds, his memorial to the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and his provocative spirit – exemplified by his signature series of photos of a middle finger raised against iconic Chinese monuments. With extraordinary access over three years, director Alison Klayman recorded Ai's work processes and exhibitions, as well as his activism. She's there when he lodges his complaint against the police for demolishing his Shanghai studio, and at his bedside as he recovers from surgery following a violent police raid.
Chinese iconoclast seen through Western eyes.
Ai Weiwei’s story is still in play
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL / MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is laced with suggestions that the famed artist is the Sino equivalent to Andy Warhol. Dandy Andy may have turned the art world upside down, but was, ultimately, about as threatening as Lady Gaga. Ai is playing a much more dangerous game: placing himself in the centre of an ideological storm.
Following Ai from his Bejing studio to Munich to London to New York and back to Shanghai and Beijing, intercutting interviews with peers, friends (no critical opinions are aired), art experts, the film captures Ai’s movements as he prepares for a show at London’s Tate Museum and also a facade for a Munich gallery commemorating the deaths of 5385 school children due to substandard construction work laid asunder by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Ai’s background is brought to light as the aforementioned talking heads reveal the oppression of his Ai’s poet father during the Cultural Revolution, Ai’s years in New York (1983-93), and (too quickly to account for Ai’s status in China) how the construction of Ai’s ‘bird’s nest’ stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics placed him in a key position to speak out politically on an international stage.
While the film celebrates Ai’s talent and energy, there’s also an implication that the New York art scene (at one point the film shows Ai posing with a Warhol self-portrait) revealed to the Chinese artist the way to achieve social change, not taking into account that China itself is changing economically, technologically and politically, giving Ai greater freedom to play his prankster/rebel role.
There is no doubt denying, however, Ai’s brilliance at using images – and social media – to achieve his desired effect. From a single tweet to a hall carpeted with artificial sunflowers, Ai is constantly looking for ways to needle Chinese authorities in a tireless effort to generate freedom for all.
However, this seductive message involves a trap for Western documentary makers, and us, their audience. As festival audiences walked out onto Sydney’s streets, did they notice the multitude of surveillance cameras or recall that every Olympics (e.g. Atlanta, Mexico City, even Sydney) toadies to the fabrication of a perfectly content city? As audiences tut-tutted the Chinese government’s harassment of Ai for ‘tax evasion’, did they spare a thought for David Hicks or Julian Assange?
The standard riposte is that such stuff happens everywhere – but it is much worse in China. With the world’s second biggest economy and the largest population, China’s size ensures that everything from consumerism to subversion to oppression happens on a bigger scale. Scale is what China is all about. Where the film gets it right is that oppression calls for feisty opposition.
Ai Weiwei’s story is still in play. Is he is an effective iconoclast for changes that Chinese people would like to see in China? Or is he just this year’s model for Western propaganda? The film is too one-sided to tell. A Steven Herrick poem used to go, that “you can’t knock iconoclasm”. That’s true, but there’s no need to swallow it whole either.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
Land, Money and Power… Dig deep into Australia’s epic history of mining.
The Tony award-winner sings Broadway numbers and re-imagines modern tunes from Lady Gaga to Sting.