Well, Ai Weiwei wasn't here in person, but was present on film. We'll take what we can get. Alison Klayman, director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, was kind enough to give a lecture in the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture Series at the Indiana University Cinema on September 6 and show her film that weekend.
So how does a recently graduated college student who majored in history get to meet, let alone get to film a documentary about China's bad boy artist/activist? Well, a turn of fate found Klayman's roommate curating an exhibition of a series of Ai Weiwei's photos that he had taken when he was living in New York City from the early 80s to the middle 90s. While this process was unfolding, Klayman was asked if she could make a video to accompany the exhibition even though she had only made one student film while on college. You can watch the video here.
As a career development professional myself, Ms. Klayman uttered the magic words that are often spoken to students who come through my office about the search for their calling: EXPERIENCE BY DOING. If you haven't experienced it, how do you know you want to do it? And that's precisely what she did.
After making this video, she began filming Weiwei, which was nothing new for him since he had been documenting his life and actions for many self-produced documentaries. After getting the money to produce the film on Kickstarter ($52,000), Klayman continued on the project. She explained his fascination with Andy Warhol and how this contributed to his wanting to have his life documented on film. Weiwei, like Warhol, loves playing with ideas of authenticity (his design studio is even called FAKE DESIGN). This is a powerful notion when living in country notorious for human rights violations, covering up and suppressing anything that is anti-party or anti-government. Another major part of his ethos, Klayman explained, is transparency, which is obviously vital to authenticity and something equally as derided in Weiwei's Communist homeland. It's no wonder he is considered so dangerous to the establishment in China since his principles contradict everything in which the party believes.
One thing is clear about Ms. Klayman - she literally beams when talking about Weiwei, taking great pride (and rightfully so) in being able to bring his story to people who had never heard of him and his struggle, a man who is under surveillance 24-hours a day by his own government, a man who disappeared for 81 days and no one knew where he was or if he was even alive. This includes yours truly. I may have heard his name in passing at some point, but nothing ever registered. How does this happen?
Her passion for this project shines through in the film which is just fantastic. It is certainly enough to get anyone's activist hackles up. His crusade (one of many) to shed light on the children who were killed in the earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 just prior to the Beijing Olympics (for which he designed the "Bird's Nest") is incredibly admirable, especially amidst his government's refusal to do or address the issues that caused the deaths of 5,300+ children and 90,000+ people total (although these numbers remain in dispute). His installation at the Haus der Kunst titled "Remembering" in Munich is one of the most moving pieces of art I've ever seen. The Chinese characters spell out, "She lived happily for seven years in this world," which is a quote from a mother who lost her daughter as the result of shoddily built schoolhouses that collapsed in the quake.
One of the key moments in the film occurs when Weiwei and his friends are attacked by police then night before he is to testify on behalf of his friend and fellow investigator in the Sichuan earthquake, Tan Zuoren. Police arrive at their hotel room and one hits Weiwei in the head. The resulting police bureaucracy keeps him from testifying and Zuoren was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Consequently, Weiwei had to have surgery in Germany as he prepped his show at the Haus Der Kunst to remove a cerebral hemorrhage as a result of the blow from the police officer who claimed Weiwei had hit himself. While we were watching the film, funnily enough, the machine that provided the subtitles lost power and the crowd nervously watched trying to figure out what was going on with just the Chinese language track. There was plenty of confusion about what actually happened in the film and in a first in my movie-going experience, I had a film rewound in the theater.
With Weiwei's quest for transparency, the film lays out his love of and constant use of Twitter. Now, I have never been a fan of Twitter because it seems to be used mostly for sharing the banal moments of people's lives and contributing to the ubiquity of ridiculous phrases coupled with hash tags (#). But his usage, like that of those who participated in the Arab Spring that began in the latter part of 2010, works for the positive. Weiwei's activity was monitored by the government and eventually shut down as was his blog for its subversive nature. And after he emerged after his 81-day disappearance he was strictly forbidden to tweet...which lasted only a few days before he was back at it. I gained respect for Twitter as not just an instrument to broadcast to anyone who will "follow" what off the wall thoughts on has on any subject or what they had to eat for the day, but something that could be used for change for the better.
Ai Weiwei said to Ms. Klayman, "China is my ready-made" harkening back to the work of Marcel Duchamp. And it is clear that he is doing his part to change the way people think about China, its art and history, and the people's own perception of their homeland. His attack of official culture (painting ancient vases with the Coca Cola logo, for example) is a way to facilitate conversation, albeit one that lands him in jail or leaves him in constant fear of detainment. As more people see this film and the accompanying works that Klayman has produced alonsgside it, most notably Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei? for PBS Frontline, more will see how things operate in China from one of their own, hopefully contributing to the granting Weiwei's ultimate goal - freedom in all forms for the Chinese people. The Sundance Special Jury Prize Winner is still on a whirlwind tour of theaters across the country, picking up steam and and informing people across the world. It seems highly likely that it will get an Oscar nomination and a possible win as well. This was one of the more enlightening experiences I've had at the theater in quite some time, perhaps since seeing Errol Morris' The Fog of War. I would encourage any and all to see this. It is an engrossing portrait of a flawed man, a rebel, a husband and father, a man who is not afraid to fight for what he believes - qualities perhaps we should all possess. Ms. Klayman does a fantastic job of giving us Ai Weiwei unfiltered and that seems how he would like it.
Jeremy Harmon aka Spirit of the Thing aka Harmonov was a Van Damme/action movie ilk devotee as a younger man. Oh how things have changed as I now prefer to delve into small budget independent and foreign films even though I still maintain that Slap Shot is the best movie ever. Follow him on Twitter @harmonov or read his new blog @ http://spiritofthething.wordpress.com/