Art and activism become one when we talk about Ai Weiwei. He shows no fear, as to show fear is to give up, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t frightened. Thanks to first-time director Alison Klayman’s film we now know the in’s and out’s of the man who will no doubt be written down in the history books as one of the world’s most important artists of the 21st century, and seeing how he lives his life our respect for him can only grow.
Klayman’s documentary can be described as much a fascinating portrait of modern day China as well as a portrait of Ai Weiwei himself, for both get shown with blunt honesty.
Ai was never ‘just a small-time artist’, he had been making a name for himself in certain (art) circles, and was part of the real up and coming in China. But it wasn’t until he designed the “bird’s nest” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that Ai became a man of global prominence. The design itself was a magnificent work of art of course but what made him stood out from the rest was his criticism against the Chinese government. The comments he made about The Party would ensure he was never to work again on a big project in the Communist state. The artist, however, only just got started, both political as well as artistically.
Realising the power of his voice and the voice of his art works, Ai started blogging and tweeting (his motto is a defiant “Don’t retreat, retweet!”). His group of followers is geographically and demographically diverse and enormous, which is the artist’s power but also makes him more of a threat in the eyes of the state.
He himself might have gotten used to being followed around by police 24/7, and in fact has started to feel very indifferent about it but we, the audience, have not. It is therefore all the more unsettling (to put it mildly) when he starts another politically charged investigative tour into China’s countryside and is confronted with more than just a camera and peering eyes. Initially, when his dealings with local police first start they still look rather comically; while they videotape him his own videographer aims the camera at them in return. But when they attack his hotel room in the middle of the night to punch him in the face and arrest his team the mood of the film turns. It shows Ai’s global impact and the increasing fear of the state and isn’t long after this that Ai disappears off the face of the earth completely.
Though it would be easy to talk just about Ai’s political struggles and the personal struggles that derive from it, Klayman manages to show his many other sides as well; the father, the husband, the friend and the boss. We see Ai working, interacting with his many assistants who carry out his vision, organising protests, searching for the names of the child victims of the Sichuan earthquake and talk about his own personal failures and victories. Surprisingly though, however busy the man himself might be, the documentary itself has a steady pace and never feels too overcrowded or busy.
It probably was a combination of luck and sheer perseverance that Klayman was there to catch some momentous moments, but nonetheless applause for her determination to keep shooting during some difficult times (she can not have had an easy ride herself while being in China to film an ‘enemy-of-the-state’).
The result of her hard work is a truly amazing and all-encompassing balanced portrayal that’s quite confrontational and political at times but nonetheless makes us laugh to keep the balance.
Let’s hope that we will see and hear a lot more from both Klayman and Ai in the future.
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