Stephanie Bunbury August 15, 2012
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei was tracked for two years by a US filmmaker - before and after his incarceration - for a revealing documentary.
WHAT would you do if you lived in a country where dissent was smothered and the dissenters themselves incarcerated, tortured, even executed? What would anyone do? Keep your head down, probably.
Chinese superstar artist Ai Weiwei, however, clearly exults in fighting back. ''If we don't push, nothing happens,'' he tells Alison Klayman in her documentary Ai Weiwei; Never Sorry. ''Life is more interesting when you make a little effort.''
Ai Weiwei's vast and lyrical artworks, such as the 8 million porcelain sunflower seeds with which he filled the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall two years ago, have made him a favourite on the world gallery circuit.
At the same time, his constant blogging, tweeting and internet interviews, along with protest works such as his assemblage of 9000 small backpacks in memory of children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, have made him the most visible opponent of the Chinese regime.
Klayman is clearly a dynamo. She had no particular plans when she left New York for China in 2006; she was interested in learning a new language, adventure and maybe, vaguely, in making a film. Two years later she met Ai when her room-mate asked her to make a video about him for an exhibition. By that time, she could speak Mandarin. ''We got along really well,'' she says. ''I thought people should and could watch him for 90 minutes. He's a very engaging figure.''
She tracked Ai for two years. Sometimes he would mock her persistence. ''He'd say: 'Just finish already! Why are you still filming me? Move on with your life!' But then there were times when he said I was doing it in a good way, because I wasn't just visiting for a few weeks.''
About a year into the project, she recalls, she and her editor were worrying over how to bring home the constant level of risk he was running. A grim solution was delivered in April 2011, when his studio was raided and he was sent to jail.
''Even in this society which has a level of repression, it was really a movie about what he can do, not what he can't,'' Klayman says. ''But how do you show him being courageous in shots of him sitting at a computer, tweeting? It looks like such a mundane act. Then China stepped in and brought that into a clearer light.''
When he is released, 81 days later, he is ashen and subdued. Since then, he has been hit with a tax bill of $US2.4 million, but has counter-sued the government. ''You ask yourself: did they win?'' Klayman says. ''It's almost like a question to the audience: he is clearly shaken and damaged by this, but do you think he's done? And I think it's a good question, because we don't know.''
Ai is clearly a powerful personality, even at his lowest ebb; one criticism of Never Sorry is that Klayman does not delve into his apparently complicated domestic life or give air time to critics. One common barb is that he is a self-promoter. ''I think as an artist you have to have some ego,'' she says. ''You can get really rich and famous now just by being a Chinese artist: he doesn't need to be political. So I feel he puts himself out there. There is an element of ego in that, but it's wrapped up in the greater purpose it serves.''
What Klayman does not want to do is portray China as simply appalling. ''I don't think you come away at the end of the movie thinking 'ugh, China!''' she says. Whatever China is, she says, we are all complicit.
''When I breathed the disgusting air in Beijing, I felt implicated in that; aren't the cheap clothes I bought in the US contributing to this?'' There are, moreover, good fights to be fought everywhere. ''I hope you think: 'I'm really inspired by how he uses his voice. How can I come out of here and make an impact?''' she says. ''That's what it does for me.''
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