DIR/WRI/PRO/DOP: Alison Klayman. • PRO: Adam Schlesinger, Karl Katz • ED: Jennifer Fineran • CAST: Ai Weiwei, Danqing Chen, Ying Gao
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has regularly courted controversy through his open and unrestrained critique of his country’s regime, a regime that does not take kindly to such critique. Through visuals, text, and personal accounts from friends, family, peers, and the man himself, Alison Klayman traces the trajectory so far of Ai’s personal, political and artistic life.
Ai’s extensive use of social media as a tool to expose the often concealed nature of Chinese governance has made him a symbol of dissent at home and abroad. The reactionary nature of his work could allow him to be seen as a perpetrator of political stunts – his ‘Fuck You Motherland’ video in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China being an example. Through this documentary, however, we are shown the man and the motivations behind the public persona.
Ai’s unabashed criticisms of the Chinese state has made him a man under surveillance. This was in a large part prompted by his relentless search for, and public investigation of, the true death toll of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a number concealed from the public. His quest to honour and preserve these children in memory serves to show that, despite his work often being stunt-like, his actions are often instigated by an overwhelming sense of humanity. Unfortunately, the cost of this is increasing scrutiny and intimidation from the Chinese authorities.
The film also highlights how, in the digital age, the camera has become a tool of power. Several scenes of altercation between Ai and police officers see both sides using cameras to record what’s happening. They are wielded almost like weapons; visual evidence to fight visual evidence. Ai comments that whereas the police will not expose their footage, the images his camera captures will be exposed to the world. In a similar manner, Ai’s extensive internet presence perhaps shows the greater uses of social media. His blog and twitter are used to expose and critique, and spread ideas before they have a chance to be silenced. The political power of the digital era is shown here with great clarity.
This is an elucidating and inspiring account of one man’s struggle for political freedom and free speech, but it is very much a story unfinished. We are shown how Ai’s vociferousness has caused increasing attempts to silence him, similar to how many other voices of dissent in China have been silenced in the past by their becoming political prisoners. It is unclear how Ai’s story will progress. We are intriguingly shown at the start of the film that Ai has a cat that can open doors. He says, the difference between a human and a cat is that ‘a cat will never close the door behind him’. Judging from the man we are introduced to in this film, we can only presume the Ai will take the more cat-like approach in the future.