Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Film Review - 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'

It's one of those things which probably doesn't need to be said, but the success of failure of a documentary film truly does depend largely on its chosen subject. No amount of clever camera-work or creative editing will save a documentary focused on something that no one is interested in, after all. But, if you have an interesting topic to explore, then even a single person with a single camera doing nothing more than merely observing can make for a fascinating film. Fortunately, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a film which does, ultimately, fall into the second category, rather than the first.

The figure at the heart of the film is, of course, here is Ai Weiwei - an artist as well as an outspoken critic of the current Chinese government. He is a man who has, at different points throughout his life, found himself held under house arrest, suffered police brutality, and who even disappeared entirely for a period of almost three months in 2011. He is also a man whose artistic accomplishments include photographing himself dropping a priceless vase and giving the middle finger to Tienanmen Square - both of which were intended as particularly unsubtle attacks on the failures he believes exist in his own country, and the way it is run.

He is known for both taking a hand in the design of the 'Bird's Nest' Stadium used in the Beijing Olympics, and for boycotting the Olympics entirely after ward in protest for the residents who were displaced by its construction. He is, clearly, a fascinating figure - and, one who definitely deserves to be the focus of a documentary film. And, for a period of time, film-maker Alison Klayman, armed with a camera, was given almost complete access to do just that - with this film being the result of her efforts.

There are two main points I took away from this documentary, though. One is that, while I don't envy Ai Weiwei for much of what he has been forced to endure for standing by his beliefs, I certainly admire his willingness to do so. It certainly makes the very brief, though seemingly obligatory, brush I had with any sort of activism back at university seem pretty pathetic by comparison (although, to be fair, I knew that at the time, also). The second thing I took away from this film is that I just don't get art, especially modern art - and, I don't think I ever will.

The documentary was at its most interesting, for me, when it was focused specifically on Ai Weiwei as a political activist trying to speak out against the corruption he saw in the Chinese government. Arguably, it was this that earned him the attention of the general public - and, it is for this that his name will typically be recognised. Here, we have his role in the 'citizen's investigation' of the casualties of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 - where a disproportionate number of casualties in the tragedy turned out to be children. When rumors began to circulate that this was due to the shoddy construction on many government-run schools, the Chinese government began its attempts to clamp down on this information - even going as fair as declaring the list of casualties to be confidential.

The 'citizen's investigation' was an act of open defiance to this government's attempt to repress this information. Volunteers gathered to travel to affected areas and conduct their own interviews - slowly compiling their own list of casualties. The process took a few years - but, when it was complete, Ai Weiwei placed the complete list on his blog. This was the act that made him infamous, as far as the Chinese government was concerned, and famous to the rest of the world. His blog was taken down within a few days, and he has been under varying degrees of observation ever since. Of course, as the film shows, the loss of his popular blog did not silence Ai Weiwei for very long - as he quickly established himself on Twitter, a platform well outside of the control of the Chinese government.

All of this was genuinely fascinating. But, of course, the documentary also has to touch on Ai Weiwei as an artist, as well - and, that's where I started to struggle, a bit.

It's no fault of the documentary, of course, or even of the man himself. I understand perfectly well that this all needs to be covered in order to paint a proper picture of him. So, of course his early life as an aspiring artist studying in New York needs to be covered - as do some of his personal art projects. But, my own personal ambivalence toward the world of modern art meant that my mind tended to wander a little during these parts of the film.

I was much more interested in Ai Weiwei as the political activist. That was where the film was at its best - and, that is what made it worth watching for me. Though, of course, in saying that I am also perfectly aware of the fact that a fan of Ai Weiwei's art is likely to be much more interested in those parts that deal with him as an artist than I was.

It would be something of a disservice to the viewer, though, if we were given nothing but art and politics. Thankfully, Alison's access to both Ai Weiwei himself, and the people around him, give her the opportunity to also show elements of his personal life.

An incredibly awkward recorded conversation between Ai Weiwei and his distraught mother, where he seemed annoyed by her fear that he might be hurt, shows that his uncompromising belief in himself may come at the expense of those who should be closest to him. At the same time, the seemingly casual revelation that he had recently cheated on his wife and had a child with another woman shows that he is a man who is not above making mistakes. He did, however, have the good grace to state that an interviewer's suggestion that as an artist he 'had a right' to do this sort of thing was foolish. And, as the film shows, he has also been more than willing to take on the responsibility of care for his young son. These brief moments clearly show that, while he may be placed on a pedestal by those who follow him, he is still human. Which is, arguably, exactly what they were intended to show.

Overall, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a fascinating film about a fascinating man. It is also a perfect example of how deceptively 'simple' the basic documentary film format can be. In the end, it is the blunt honesty of the film's portrayal of Ai Weiwei that is its most notable feature - and, it is to the credit of both Alison Klayman and Ai Weiwei, himself, that we are permitted to see any of this. In the end, the film exists simply because the story that it tells is one that is actually worth telling - and, that feels like reason enough.

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