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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
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by Jay Seaver

"Mr. Ai certainly has nothing to be sorry about."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is an odd duck, even by installation-artist standards. That it's often an affable, upbeat eccentricity may help explain why a government not known for free expression let the outspoken Ai be for so long (along with his international renown). Such an artist in such a situation can't avoid trouble forever, but the type he winds up making tends to be interesting.

The movie opens innocently enough, with Ai in his Beijing home/studio, supervising the fabrication of pieces meant for upcoming shows, talking about art in a broad sense and telling the audience how one of the dozens of cats that share his space can open doors. And while some of his more obviously confrontational pieces (like a "perspective study" photograph of his middle finger and Tienanmen Square) and stances (helping design the "birds' nest" for the Beijing Olympics and then boycotting the games) don't seem to draw a reaction, a seemingly much more innocuous project - documenting the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake - gets his popular blog shut down. Ai takes his message to Twitter, but...

It may initially seem like an odd thing for the People's Republic to go to the wall over, both because Ai's actions seem far more humanitarian than political, and because, well, why make civilian casualties of a natural disaster a state secret? As the film points out, there is an underlying cause aside from random tragedy - shoddy construction materials used in many of the area's schools - but both artist and filmmaker are humane enough to not try and score obvious political points from dead children. There's a connection be made between schools literally collapsing and Ai Weiwei's comments about Chinese art schools not teaching artists what they need to know, but director Alison Klayman doesn't push that (if it's even intended). If anything, the intent seems to be to show that Ai's activism springs from concern about his people rather than his government.

The other thing to be gleaned from this activity is that Ai is an activist for the modern age; though he often protests via singular creations like a wall covered in student backpacks in Germany - what you might expect from an artist - his greatest impact often comes from his ability to use social media effectively. Klayman often cuts away to Ai's succinct tweets (often with an attached photo), but we also see that this is a part of his general method of operation - earlier, when the film is more focused on his art, an artisan working on his "Zodiac" project who describes himself as a "hired assassin" says that Ai doesn't really like building things personally. His activism is similar to his art - though he is very much involved, his tendency toward crowdsourcing (and skill at same) both allows for much larger projects and helps train the next group.

Klayman doesn't hit that sort of parallel hard enough for it to obviously be intentional, but that someone in the audience can pick up on it illustrates how well she and editor Jennifer Fineran construct the movie: It's fairly linear without feeling like too much is being held back early on, even though it develops themes that must have been factors toward the start. Klayman integrates bits of Ai Weiwei's own documentary shorts and footage shot by his fellow activists with what she shot as something close to a one-woman film crew nicely - it's not seamless, but rather meant to give credit where credit is due.

It does, apparently, take a bit of time for Ai Weiwei to warm up to having someone documenting him - a couple of people get late introductions because it apparently takes that long for Ai to trust Klayman, and I'm not 100% sure that Ai Weiwei's mother is actually on-screen (she shows him asking why she needs to interview his mother, and says to just choose a woman off the street, and at first it sure seems like Klayman is playing along). He proves to be a great subject once everybody is settled in, though, combining whimsy with clear intelligence, and also managing to demonstrate passion for both his art and his people without either being relegated to second-tier status.

He's so likable and charismatic that it may occasionally slip the audience's mind that the other people Klayman shows and interviews are just as brave and committed as he is, and arguably more so because their disappearance and persecution likely won't get the same amount of international attention and outcry as that of a world-famous artist. But, even a distributed world needs some individuals to rally around, and Ai Weiwei is certainly able to grab an audience's attention.

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originally posted: 05/08/12 12:58:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2012 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2012 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  27-Jul-2012 (R)
  DVD: 04-Dec-2012


  DVD: 04-Dec-2012

Directed by
  Alison Klayman

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