I’ve just seen my favorite documentary of the year: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which opens in Charlotte Friday. How can you resist a movie about an artist who helped design the stadium used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – the one known as “The Bird’s Nest” – and then posted an Internet photo of himself giving it the bird, middle finger proudly extended?
What happened to turn respect to disgust? The May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. Many schools collapsed, but the government would neither take responsibility for shoddy construction nor even account for all the dead children. Suddenly the artist turned into an activist.
He designed a vast, multicolored banner made up of 9,000 school backpacks, to hang outside an exhibit in Germany; the backpacks formed Chinese characters that read, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” a comment by the mother of a dead schoolgirl. (That exhibit, titled “Ai Weiwei: So Sorry,” gave the film its title.) He and other volunteers put names and birthdates together for a tribute to the dead, a white memorial that suggests the black stone lists of names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam War monument in Washington.
And, not surprisingly, he became one of those public figures the Chinese government harasses for “incitement to subversion of state power,” an offense so vague it can apply to anything from a public protest to a critical blog post. The tipping point may have been a video in which Ai and many others looked directly at the camera and repeated “---- you, motherland.” He has always been a documentarian himself (the Internet Movie Data Base credits him with nine films as a director) and he knew how to prick Chinese officials’ pride.
They knew how to kick back, of course. While Ai was en route to testify at a fellow dissident’s trial, police detained him long enough to keep him out of the courtroom and hit him in the head hard enough to send him to the hospital. He was encouraged by officials to build a vast new studio in Beijing as part of an artists’ colony, then told it was illegal and saw it destroyed. In 2011, he disappeared for 81 days; authorities then released him without trial, claiming he owed $2.3 million in back taxes.
Ai, who turned 55 this year, looks like a Chinese Luciano Pavarotti: jovial but guarded, tall and big-bellied, scraggly-bearded and balding. He was dissident material from the beginning, at least potentially: He served five years in a Maoist “re-education camp” with his father, Ai Qing, a poet who was punished for 19 years for the crime of speaking his mind. But the government didn’t make Ai Weiwei’s life miserable until he asked questions about human rights abuses four years ago. (He was forbidden to blog, so he turned to Twitter. He’s at twitter.com/aiww, mostly in Chinese.)
Watching the movie, you have to marvel at the obstinacy and paranoia of Chinese officials: They can never admit wrongdoing, intentional or otherwise, because that would suggest a flaw in the political facade. Their suppression of him reminds us that kings and dictators have feared truth-tellers for centuries; execution, excommunication or exile await those who question fearful, rigid authority figures.
The film made me grateful to be in America, where artists of every stripe – brilliant or stupid, humble or outspoken, optimistic or despondent – can state their points of view freely. And it made me grateful that a few artists in a place like China risk their liberty to speak truth to power. Like water against a boulder, they’ll need a long time to wear their target down. But someday, perhaps....