Ai Weiwei is the internationally artist, prankster, architect, sculptor, photographer, social and cultural critic, curator, internet agitator and Twitter activist who was arrested by Chinese authorities and held for over three months in 2011 after a life-time of government harassment and a childhood filled with memories of his father’s own persecution the very same year he was short-listed for Time’s “Person of the Year.” His arrest caused a world-wide fervor, especially since Weiwei had been blogging and Twitter-documenting this pestering, stalking, annoyances, and, finally, in the span of a few year’s time- his eventual beating, house arrest, video spying, studio razing and eventual imprisonment by the Chinese government.
Here is a truly gifted artist going beyond the actual confines of his talent, to risk his life, literally, to make China a place where his toddler son may be truly safe to grow up inside of. And the beautiful thing is, as this masterful, all-access documentary by American journalist Alison Klayman demonstrates in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Weiwei is slowly igniting the fuse that Communist China desperately wants to be seen snuffed out at all costs, among all walks of its people living in the “Republic.” And others are learning how, when and where to light it, emboldened by Wei and other fellow activists and artists. They have made this great discovery and followed them, mainly, online.
The film starts in Weiwei’s sparse, grounded, spacious concrete studio. There, Weiwei entertains a mélange of playful cats, young, bold Chinese volunteers and activists who are busy making phone calls and emailing away as Weiwei prepares for two major art shows simultaneously- one at the prestigious Tate Museum in London. (“I am asking everyone for their ideas,” he jokes pseudo-playfully, procrastination showing as the shows’ openings loom close by.)
We learn about his varied projects and his hands-off, punk rock attitude towards the Chinese government (a series of photographs encourages others to express the sentiment “Fuck the Homeland,” middle-finger raised in anger, Weiwei’s gentle, Mona Lisa smile playing upon his lips.) Much of Wei’s art is conceptual, and he has other artists and artisans doing the actual construction, although a friend and fellow artist assures us on-camera that Weiwei can build anything. One project was an Internet list of over four thousand names of young students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, because of poor school construction, the Chinese authorities never admitting this fact.
We learn about his family’s life-long persecution, how he spent many of his adolescent years alongside his father, slaving away in a labor camp. Klayman shows Weiwei’s bohemian youth when he lived in Manhattan during the eighties, how New York shaped his artistic sensibilities while allowing himself to feel what being this free really meant, and what it trulyfelt like.
It is completely enlivening to see an actual revolutionary at work, and, it must be said, having that person fulfill your grandest expectations to the utmost. Weiwei comes across a strange mixture of Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, and the Dalai Lama—a pretty tall order, and the perfect concoction to make one an international icon. But the artist who helped design and then thoroughly denounce his own Olympic “Bird’s Nest” in Beijing, after accusing the government of ousting the locals and forcing “smiles” and happiness on the faces of miserable Chinese citizens, Weiwei is shown to us by the director full of the great contradictions only a true artist can endure with any panache. He has both a loving wife and mistress by his side, a profound fear and courage about his own activism (often expressed by him in the very same sentence,) and the conflicting love/hate feelings about his origin and birthplace.
The most riveting part of the film is how Ai Weiwei uses the internet to not only engage the world about China’s profound corruption and truly vile disrespect of its own people, the environment and certainly the Chinese quality of life, but how often and where, and with what great courage, efficiency, savvy and provocation. When Chinese police beat Ai Weiwei after forcing themselves into his hotel room, Ai manages to actually catch it on video with his cell. We get to see it, too, along with the rest of the world, who first saw it first on his Twitter feed. (The Chinese government eventually blacked and disabled Ai’s active blog.) Ai suffered a brain hemorrhage from this single, near-devastating blow to the head. And, in a way, so does every Western viewer suffer a hearty blow: It makes every complaining, niggling little thing you ever said aloud or wondered about the Internet disappear into thin air. And makes you treasure the gift of free speech in a way you will never forget.
China makes another devastating appearance in a truly life-changing, mouth-dropping documentary film, Peter Navarro’s Death by China, after his book by the same name. Narrated by Martin Sheen, (when is he going to President, by the way?), produced, written and directed by Navarro, the film grabs you by the throat and never lets go, and your mind simply reels along with it. Compiled so a sixth grader could understand Chinese-American trade relations, yet literally packed with frightening information, the film explores our dependency on goods made exclusively in China, the soon-to-be-death of US manufacturing, and a government that is so corrupt, so uncaring, so authoritarian- to call them dictators almost gives them too much credit. What we have here is a nation that is making US middle citizens mere custodians (with their consumerism and few remain corporate jobs) to giant, multi-national US corporations.
Yes, we have heard this all before, and, naturally, it is quite easy to pass from logic into hysteria over this very fiery issue. But watch this movie, and you will, in turn, start glowing with a newfound, hit-on-your-head awareness. It’s so simple, it seems almost stupid: How do Republicans, conservatives, Democrats, any CEO, Board of Directors, thinking American, really-justify turning over the manufacture of their goods to a purely (no matter how anyone spins it) and deeply communist country? The film also highlights how our jobs and livelihoods are now decidedly and continuously shipped overseas by American companies (both gargantuan and mid-sized), as we continue our over-spending and shopping at Walmart, Costco, Apple….a list that is endless and scary in its comprehension. Did you know, for example, that not a single brand of cell phone or laptop is made in the US any longer? As the wife of one of the interviewees points out, it is impossible to find a microwave, nor a single household good that is not “Made in China.” We are reminded, of course and more than once, that it was Bill Clinton who pushed the signing of the World Trade Organization’s agreement with
China. But this film is going way beyond partisan lines here. In Death by China, we are all guilty, every single last, iPhone-toting, HD-watching, 99Cent Store-slumming one of us. “You have to choose between your company or your country!” decries proud Brian O'Shaughnessy, Chairman of the still standing, US-based Revere Copper. The film opens August 17. Miss it if you dare.