Ai Weiwei elevator photo

Ai Weiwei’s famous Twitter photo of his crew with police in an elevator in Chengdu

Alison Klayman’s 90-minute film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry set out to be a portrait of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and along the way morphed into a highbrow, jaw-dropping reality show about fumbling, corrupt governments (China), social media (Twitter), democracy and art (Weiwei) and the power of the state (courtesy the Chengdu police), with cameo appearances by Truth, Justice and the American Way (Weiwei as a quasi Superman), brought to you by the insightful commentary of Evan Osnos of the New Yorker (among others).

Weiwei spent his formative years with his famous poet father, Ai Qing, banished to the Chinese equivalent of the Gulag. His parents were victims of the twists and turns of the incessant purges that rocked the country’s political system. Despite being unable to partake of a formal Chinese education, Weiwei became one of the founders of the influential Stars Group, which held a spontaneous, illegal art exhibition outside the National Gallery (now Museum) of China in 1979.

In 1981 he arrived in New York, where he spent the 1980s being one of those Chinese guys in Times Square who draw portraits of tourists on the street. He hung out in the East Village, photographed the Tompkins Square riots and palled around with Allen Ginsburg. He watched the Berlin Wall come down and the protests in Tiananmen Square unfold on TV news, inspiring him to stage a hunger strike in front of the UN to protest his government’s tactics. He also watched the very public airing of the US government’s dirty laundry with the Iran-Contra hearings, an event inconceivable inside China.

After 12 years, he returned home to be with his father, who died shortly thereafter. By 1994 he was, by his own admission, a “clean slate” with no career and no prospects. He began hanging out in Beijing’s own version of the East Village and published Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995) and Gray Cover Book (1997), which highlighted the then-unknown (to Chinese artists) Western artists Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. In 2000, he curated the dissident and groundbreaking show Fuck Off with Feng Boyi in Shanghai.

“Maybe to be powerful is to be fragile.”

Weiwei became internationally prominent as the artistic consultant for the 2008 Olympic National, or “Bird’s Nest,” Stadium, collaborating with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. But he then withdrew his support of the Olympics to protest the massive ejection of migrant workers from Beijing before the opening ceremonies and guilt-tripped director Steven Spielberg to follow suit.

That same year, the devastating Sichuan earthquake killed 70,000 people, including over 5,000 schoolchildren, due in no small part to the shoddy “tofu construction” of schoolhouses, whose construction costs greased the pockets of myriads officials at the expense of paying for earthquake-resistant fortifications. The government cover-up was immediate, and in August 2009, Weiwei, Klayman and crew set out to Chengdu to document the aftermath and record and publish the names of each and every child who perished.

This so infuriated the powers that be that they sent the Chengdu police, who came pounding on the crew’s hotel door at 3 am. Klayman caught most of the panic and confusion on tape. Weiwei also documented their attack with the now famous phone photo taken in an elevator. The police beat him and charged him with inciting political subversion. He said, “Chinese law is a big joke — they said they did not beat me and it is lawful … and a whole system covered it up.”

It is at this point that Klayman’s foray into this whiplash-invoking reality, a made-for-prime-time movie that no one knew would turn out this way, smartly makes social media the co-star. In the aftermath, Weiwei turns to Twitter, tweeting the fracas out to the whole world before leaving for Germany, where he undergoes cranial surgery for an internal hemorrhage caused by the attack.

Ai Weiwei in hospital

Ai Weiwei in a German hospital with blood draining from his hemmorage in 2009 (photo via Frieze blog)

All the backpedaling and propaganda offensives in the world can’t erase Klayman’s proof. As a foreign woman discreetly filming in the background, she heroically captures damming, irrefutable footage of corruption and beatings in action. However, she has no hero worship of her subject, just a healthy respect. She doggedly follows Weiwei into his studio, and the more human parts of the film emerge: hapless moments with his nagging, clueless mother, supportive wife and dutiful mistress, and touching interactions with his out-of-wedlock toddler son. He is careful to criticize his own foibles while playing clever intellectual buffoon to the camera’s unflinching eye. When asked if he thinks he is becoming a brand, he answers, “Yes, for liberal thinking.”

In between international art shows, including the infamous sunflower seed show at the Tate Modern, Weiwei returns to Chengdu a year after the attack with camera crew in tow, to confront his tormentors and file a lawsuit. Klayman tracks his rounds from office to office and his successes and failures navigating the maze of bureaucratic procedures, about which he tweets incessantly. At one point he rips the sunglasses off the smug face of one of his former police-officer attackers so that his face can be filmed, thereby turning social protest into an art form. He scuffles yet again with the local police, an encounter filmed by Klayman’s steely eye. Local people call him “teacher” and come to sit with him as he eats dinner at an outdoor restaurant. He is being watched and filmed by the city police, though, who keep asking him to leave the restaurant. He astutely comments, “The police don’t know the power of the image. Their camera will not be exposed to public but ours will. The Communist party is hooligans, and you have to think like them.”

The Shanghai municipal government invited Weiwei to build a studio complex, but when it’s completed, in November 2010, he is informed it will be torn down, most likely as an act of retribution. “There is no discussion, no rationality, no evaluation,” he says of the authorities. Instead he decides to throw a party celebrating the destruction. Word goes out on Twitter and spreads like wildfire, but he is placed under house arrest to prevent him from attending his own party. Despite the danger, people in Shanghai come out and celebrate by eating cooked river crabs, whose name in Chinese sounds like the propaganda term “harmonious society.” Released the next day, Weiwei states the reason for his provocative behavior: “I did it because my father’s generation did not do a good job.”

Tweet from Ai Wewei's Twitter feed

Tweet from Ai Wewei’s Twitter feed during his house arrest in 2010

But make no mistake: Weiwei was fully aware of where this dangerous road was leading. At one point, he looks straight into the camera lens and says, “You ask what is next. It looks quite obvious what is next.”

Then, on April 3, 2011, he was arrested at Beijing airport on his way to Hong Kong and disappeared for 81 days. The worldwide outcry went all the way up to the White House, with Hillary Clinton calling for his release, which was finally secured on June 22. He was charged with “economic crimes” and tax evasion. Visibly shaken by the ordeal, he said, “Maybe to be powerful is to be fragile.”

Klayman’s film begins by showing Weiwei’s 40 cats at his Caochangdi Studio, and how one of them learned to leap up and open the door when he wanted to go out. Of course he was unable to close the door behind him —  and that is the exact parable of the life of Ai Weiwei. Or, as the artist himself said, “Never retreat, retweet.”

Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry had its New York premiere on June 1 at the Guggenheim Museum. It screens again on June 20 at Union Docs as part of the Northside Film Festival and opens in theaters July 27.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.