In the quaint, quiet hill-town of Dharamsala, on a cold October evening hordes of
people filed inside a cozy auditorium to watch Alyson Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never
Sorry, a documentary on the Chinese dissident artist that was the final screening at
the four-day Dharamshala International Film Festival. That a documentary can
command a packed gathering on a Monday evening is to Weiwei’s credit.
Klayman, who started filming Weiwei in 2008 when she was working as a
journalist in China, brings easy access to the artist — in his studio, at his house,
when the Chengdu police hit him, at the Tate Modern in London as he puts
together Sunflower Seeds, an exhibit made up of more than 100 million porcelain
sunflower seeds handcrafted and painted by village artists, and, when he was released after being
detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in an undisclosed location in early 2011.
Most of the footage onscreen is from Weiwei’s camera, who has been using it as an
art tool from his student days in the US in early 80s. Part of it also comes from his
documentaries Hua Lien Ba’er (Dirty Faces) and Lao Ma Ti Hua. (Disturbing
the peace) Klayman also shows several tweets from Weiwei, that drums up a lot of
support for him online. Soon after authorities let go off him in a $2 million tax
evasion case, thousands of supporters come together to contribute.
The documentary opens to the affable Weiwei telling us that the difference between \men and cats is that men close doors after they walk out, while cats don’t. And
then, you see Weiwei shutting the door behind him, while his cats slips by without.
It is difficult to not love the portly and funny Weiwei. As a Chinese art blogger put it,
his art is like “a slap on the face, surpassing the idea of art”. Weiwei’s oeuvre of
artworks is wide; he’s been a sculptor, an installation artist, an architect, a curator
and he’s also a film-maker. Most importantly, his art takes on the authoritarian
In May 2008, an earthquake in China’s Sichuan province claimed the lives of
more than 5,000 school-children stuck in poorly-built schools. Following a shoddy rescue exercise by the
government, Weiwei took on the gargantuan task of collecting the names of these
children. With the help of volunteers, Weiwei came out with the names and details
of these children on the anniversary of the quake. The government, in response, arrests
one of his key volunteers, and confines and beats up Weiwei for going to depose in
the court in provincial capital Chengdu.
It is soon after that Weiwei started denouncing his association with the Chinese
government for whom he provided artistic consultancy for the Bird’s Nest or the
National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, catapulting him to global fame. The
Chinese government has barred him from giving interviews, tweeting, and heading out
You soon learn that Weiwei’s political art stems from his father Ai Qing’s persecution
during Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime when Qing was denounced as an anti-rightist.
Klayman’s documentary brings forth Weiwei’s simple universe, where art spills into his
living. He is not political, he is just being brave. While his friends and family worry for
his life, Weiwei proudly flips a few birds over some of the world’s most visited tourist
spots: the Tiananmen Square, the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the
This is a documentary you will be wise not to miss.
Amrita Madhukalya tweets @visually_kei