Matthew Reddin
“Ai Weiwei

Never Sorry,” Milwaukee Film Festival

This doc about the Chinese artist-turned-activist showcases both sides of his public persona, as well as the consequences of his nation's oppressive instincts.

By - Sep 26th, 2012 04:00 am
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The Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Passport: China” program, designed to spotlight the cinema of the world’s most populous nation, has a bunch of great films in its lineup. There’s Sacrifice, a Zhou Dynasty-period drama directed by Chen Kaige (of Farewell My Concubine fame) about a prince hidden from his family’s killer; 11 Flowers, an autobiographical story by director Wang Xiaoshuai about a fugitive he met as a boy in 1975, at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution; and High Tech, Low Life, an award-winning documentary about two Chinese citizen reporters circumventing the Great Firewall of China.

But the name that may have caught your eye is Ai Weiwei, the subject of English-language documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Ai, an artist-turned-activist with substantial international stature, made headlines across the world when he vanished in April 2011, imprisoned for 81 days by the ruling party he has spent years criticizing and only released under restrictive conditions after considerable pressure.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry requires viewing, but not because it addresses this controversy. It barely does, in fact. The conflict occurs at the end of the film after only slight foreshadowing, but the film powerfully illustrates the consequences of a system that quashes freedom of expression and the consequences of fighting back.

By documenting Ai as both artist and activist, filmmaker Alison Klayman demonstrates that the first cannot help but lead to be the second. The film delves into his early years as a young conceptual artist in New York and a leader in Beijing’s underground art movement in the ’90s. It focuses primarily on works installed between 2008 and 2011, including an exhibition at the Tate Modern called Sunflower Seeds, comprising 100 million hand-painted porcelain “seeds,” meant to suggest the presence of individuality among masses. Given the millions of Chinese citizens and the relative few whose voices can be heard, the message carries weight.

But then there’s his activism. He first earns national attention for criticizing China during the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the film suggests Ai’s project of collecting the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake put him on the government’s radar. He posts the 5,000-plus names on a blog that is shut down almost immediately, and he is later detained and assaulted in a successful attempt to keep him from testifying at the trial of a fellow “dissident.” Chillingly, despite the fact that the attack gives him brain damage that eventually requires surgery, the government is completely unwilling to acknowledge that it even took place.

Not content to be silenced, Ai turns to Twitter, where he can subvert the firewall entrapping him and the rest of China. Never Sorry splices tweets and photo uploads throughout the film, using them as pauses in the action that drive home Ai’s points. At first, Ai simply uses the platform to express his thoughts. By the end of the film, when he is able to assemble a “demolition party” to mock the government’s decision to destroy his Shanghai studio–a party he cannot even attend while under house arrest–you realize exactly what the Communist Party might be afraid of.

Ai’s story is all the more compelling and tragic because we live in a culture where artists doing crazy, controversial things like flipping the bird at a photo of Tiananmen Square is almost expected, even if it’s disliked by the government. In the earliest minutes of the film, before some of his political statements are more directly expressed, Ai seems like any other conceptual artist in the Western world.

But he’s not in the Western world. His story gives us a clear sense of just what that may mean for him and his fellow Chinese.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry premieres at the Milwaukee Film Festival Friday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m., at the Oriental Theater, and screens three additional times during the festival. For more information, visit the MFF website.

For a full list of films, check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides to the Milwaukee Film Festival, covering premieres during the first weekend and the month of October, by Matthew Reddin and Sahan Jayasuriya.

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