Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (T/F 2012) is now playing at our sister theater Ragtag Cinema. This film introduces us to Ai Weiwei, a provocative artist and political activist, challenging the authoritarian Chinese state with wit, charisma, and intelligence as he pioneers a new style of activism for the age of Twitter.
Director Alison Klayman created a preview of Never Sorry for the New York Times Op-Docs. This short introduces Weiwei’s political evolution and his remarkable body of artwork, containing photography, sculpture, architecture, installations, and documentary.
During this year’s fest Klayman visited our filmmaker lounge and explained to Sundance Now how she became involved in telling Weiwei’s story, and why a holistic view is required to fully appreciate his diverse art and complex public persona.
Weiwei first provoked the ire of the Chinese state with his incendiary photography. His most famous image, Study of Perspective: Tiananmen, shows his own arm making an obscene gesture in the direction of the famous landmark.
The conflict between Weiwei and the state intensified during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Weiwei objected to his architectural design, the Bird’s Nest stadium, being used for what he regarded as propaganda purposes in the games opening and closing ceremonies. “I very openly criticize the tendency to use culture for the purpose of propaganda, to dismiss the true function of art and the intellect.”
Another focal point of Weiwei’s activism was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. When it became clear that shoddy government construction standards were in large part responsible for the earthquake’s horrible impact, Weiwei published the names of victims on his blog, which eventually grew into a list of 5,385 people. His harrowing footage of the destruction eventually became one of his many documentary films, So Sorry.
Fellow activist Tan Zuoren was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for his reporting on the earthquake. Weiwei’s attempts to present evidence at his trial became the subject of another documentary, Disturbing the Peace. Here Weiwei engages in Michael Moore-esque ambushes, filming squirming government officials as he tries to weave his way through the bureaucratic labyrinth.
Throughout this time, Weiwei experienced persistent harassment by the police, but the situation grew much worse in 2011. In January his studio was demolished by the authorities, and in April he was arrested and held in detention for 81 days. After before being released into a strict house arrest for alleged tax evasion, he created a 24/7 webcast of his own home as an ironic statement on the state’s surveillance, but was quickly forced to shut it down. He only recently began sharing the humiliating details of his incarceration with the New York Times and giving interviews to Western media about his life under constant observation.
Despite all of this, Weiwei continues to make art. Unable to leave China, Weiwei contributed from afar to the design of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London with his longtime collaborators Herzog & de Meuron. Weiwei’s previous work with this architectural firm includes the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the unfinished Ordos 100 villas in Mongolia. His work on the villas was covered in another of Weiwei’s documentaries, recently released, also titled Ordos 100.
This all just scratches the surface of Weiwei’s art and personality. If you missed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry at True/False or just want to see it again, swing by Ragtag Cinema some time soon. You won’t be sorry.