Father Courage: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman

Father Courage

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman

The opening shots of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s 91-minute-long documentary about China’s best-known dissident artist, are so well-chosen they reverberate throughout the film. We see a walled compound in Beijing and a shot of a camera mounted on a street pole that is pointed at the building’s green door. We will soon learn it is a surveillance camera placed by the authorities so that they can monitor Weiwei’s comings and goings. Like everything else about this “opinionated and romantic artist,” Weiwei will take this activity and push it to the limit. He applies the logic of Dante’s Inferno, where sinners are punished by being given in excess what they most craved in life. If the authorities want information, he will provide them with a constant flow of it. He becomes completely transparent and, using the Internet as a vehicle (he Tweets as much as eight hours a day), his life and his engagement with China’s oppressive bureaucracy assume a public face.

The opening two minutes also introduce us to Teacher Ai, as he is known to the volunteers who work in his studio and the Chinese citizens who meet him in the street. We see him instructing his assistant in the lesson to be learned from the one cat among the 40 animals in the compound who has figured out how to open the door. (The sequence in which the orange cat suddenly leaps into the air and pushes down with its paws on the door latch is impressive.) When Weiwei says, “Let’s start,” it doesn’t so much signal the beginning of the film as the start of our learning experience. By the time the film ends, you will have pretty much run the gamut of emotional reactions from A to Z: you will admire Weiwei’s courage, identify with his wonder at parenting his young son, be skeptical about his sincerity, sit in awe of his strategic manoeuvring, be confused by the intricacies of his domestic life, and fearful for his safety. Put simply, you will develop a relationship, and like any personal relationship worth having, it won’t always be easy. To steal a line from a ’70s film, love means never having to say you’re sorry. Weiwei speaks the words “so sorry” only once in the film, when he is at his lowest point. The apology doesn’t last and he returns to acting out the uncompromising message of the film’s title.

In one of the many interview segments in Never Sorry, Klayman asks Weiwei how he would describe the kind of art he does. “I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move. I make a move. Now I’m waiting for my opponent to make his next move.” He doesn’t wait very long. Weiwei is a brilliant strategist and he keeps raising the bar in the game he is playing with the Communist Party. It is not always a pleasant occupation. In August, 2009, Weiwei is assaulted by a police officer in Chengdu and it almost costs him his life (he undergoes emergency brain surgery in Germany a month after the incident). He decides to sue the police, so he and his lawyers go to Sichuan Province where they will leave 15 dossiers with as many government agencies as they can. Weiwei knows nothing will come of it, but he also knows that the system has to be challenged. “If we don’t push, there’s nothing happening,” he says. “But life is much more interesting when you make a little bit of effort.”

Both his life and the documentary about it become much more interesting because the elephant in the room is always in record mode and its eye is a lens. Rarely has a film more consciously recorded its recording. Klayman includes excerpts in her documentary from the films Weiwei has made about art projects and public interventions in which he has been involved; there are cameras and recording devices everywhere. Weiwei says he gives about a hundred interviews a year to the international press and as many to Chinese media. We see examples in Never Sorry: Weiwei interviewed in his studio, on Christiane Amanpour’s CNN foreign affairs program, he is interviewed by The New Yorker, and we hear him on BBC Radio. A Steadicam follows him and his son when they walk across the Sunflower Seeds piece at the Tate Modern in London; there is even a video camera picking up the sound when he is assaulted by police in an early morning hotel room raid in Chengdu.

He becomes a more relentless chronicler of his life than the authorities could ever hope to be. His wife says there is no separation between art and life, and she might have added, nor is there one between private and public. Weiwei prefers it that way. Everything he does is documented. His constant companion is videographer Zhao Zhao, who records every interaction with police, bureaucrats and functionaries. Some of these encounters are absurdly funny. In 2010, Weiwei and his volunteers are eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Chengdu, and the police, who have already come to ask when he will be leaving, are on the street taping the meal. We also see Zhao, uncomfortably close to the policeman’s left shoulder, taping the taping. It is one of the many occasions when we are made aware that we are watching a metafilm; Never Sorry is always happy when the cameras are rolling because that means information is being gathered which can be communicated. “Blogs and the Internet are great inventions for our time,” Weiwei tells Klayman, “because they give regular people an opportunity to change public opinion.” This idea of transparency, of passing on information, and the transformative role that social media plays in that process is one that Weiwei tirelessly addresses. He tells a British reporter that he believes artists can effect change, and that the Internet is the tool through which that aspiration might be realized.

The quality of his art and his instinct for attracting media attention established his reputation in the 1980s, and social media is the instrument that has kept him in the public eye. His history, as the child of party members who were punished with 19 years of “re-education through labour” during Mao’s revolution, as an avant-garde artist in New York, and then as one of the artists who brought an awareness of contemporary art to China in the ’90s, is skillfully told in the movie. He comes to the attention of the Western media when he criticizes the tactics of displacement the Chinese government used to stage the 2008 Olympics. Weiwei’s attack on the system begins with the Olympics, but he intensifies it after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, in which 70,000 people lost their lives, many of them children who died in the collapse of poorly constructed government schools. The art he made as a reaction to this catastrophe is singular; 9,000 children’s backpacks are arranged to say, “She lived happily on this earth for 7 years,” a message written in a letter by the parents of a young girl who died in the earthquake. Named Remembering, it was installed on the outside wall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich as part of Weiwei’s survey exhibition in 2009.

It is one thing to exhibit a piece of art in a German gallery but Weiwei’s anniversary Internet posting of the names of the 5,212 children who died was a radical escalation of his conflict with the government. When the authorities shut down his blog,
Weiwei immediately gravitated to Twitter. After a particularly nasty encounter in Chengdu, he asks one of his supporters whether she captured any of the police brutality. “They have this animal instinct. We want them to show their true face,” he says. “You should be Tweeting. Be clear about what happened today. Write more than one line. If you Tweet nonstop people will understand what is happening.” It is a simple lecture from Teacher Ai, the master of social networking.

Never Sorry is often very funny. Weiwei can be charming and amusing. The scene of him sitting in a large cooking pot, like a mischievous Buddha, and his lust for corned beef sandwiches in Carnegie Deli while he recounts his previous life in New York, are delightful. Klayman has also managed to interview a fascinating and knowledgeable roster of characters who speak with insight and intelligence about Weiwei and the country he is fighting. And make no mistake, it is a battleground, as Evan Osnos, the China Correspondent for the The New Yorker, describes it. Weiwei is ready for whatever they throw at him. “He has a hooligan side. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans,” says Beijing artist Chen Danqing, who appreciates that Weiwei is not like any of the graduates from the Central Academy who have learned to operate within the system. “The Communist Party are just hooligans really, so you have to turn yourself into a hooligan as well.” The next scene shows Weiwei leaving the outdoor restaurant as he sends the following Tweet: “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.”

When asked if he has ever wondered why he is so fearless, Weiwei’s initial response is incredulity and, then, denial. “I’m so fearful, but I act brave because I know the danger is really there. If you don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” This fear is an undercurrent throughout the film, and much of it stems from the concern that in the high-stakes chess game being played you never really know what the authorities are going to do. “Their reason and their logic is not predictable,” Weiwei tells a writer in attempting to explain why he hasn’t been silenced, while other prominent dissidents, like Tan Zuoren and Liu Xiaobo, have been given lengthy prison sentences. He knows he has become “a brand for liberal thinking and individualism,” but that association guarantees him no protection in China. He tells his mother, “If they want to get me, they will. There’s nothing we can do about that.” They do get him. In 2011 for 81 days, from early April until the third week in June, Ai Weiwei disappeared. He was held in an undisclosed location, interrogated and forced to confess to tax evasion. When he was released he apologized for not granting interviews–his uncharacteristic “so sorry” comment–but within two months he was back on Twitter and speaking to the press. ArtReview magazine named him the most powerful artist of 2011. “Weiwei has a very strong personality,” says filmmaker, Gu
Changwei. “The more you push him, the more he’ll resist.”

Never Sorry is an ambitious, richly layered film about a complicated artist living in an unpredictable country. That Alison Klayman has been able to build the coherent story she has from this mountain of information is a tribute to her skill and determination. In the end, she has given us a provocative portrait of a man and the method he applies to the madness around him. Ai Weiwei is a remarkable artist and a captivating personality. By the end of the film, you’re pulling for him, with all his contradictions and foibles in tow. In another of the parade of interviews in the film he tells a young journalist, a cheeky representative of the new China, what it is that sustains his relentless pace and self-endangering acts. “Freedom is a strange thing,” he says, and he seems to be talking to himself more than to anyone in the room. “Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away. Then, as an individual, you can be more powerful than a whole country.” He may be inside his compound talking to himself but you have the feeling that outside, the sleeping giant is awake, and listening. ❚

Volume 31, Number 3: Dreams and the Spaces In Between

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #123, published August 2012.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.