By Cho Ling Ngai
“She lived happily for seven years in this world.”
This strikingly colorful Chinese phrase made of 9,000 backpacks was installed on the facade of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich. “She” is one of the 5,200 children who were buried alive in the sudden and heart-wrenching 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Along with Ai Weiwei’s many works of art, this installation commemorates the students who died in the earthquake and is a scene in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
Ai, a Chinese artist and social activist, is attentively watched by the Chinese government for his controversial and anti-authoritarian art. Prior to this exhibition in Germany, Ai’s investigation and disclosure of the earthquake’s death tolls on the Internet had put him under surveillance by officials.
His international presence attracted American journalist Alison Klayman to translate his relentless confrontation with the Chinese government into a 90-minute documentary.
Fighting against the system is a perpetual battle, especially when it’s a one-man show. To remind people of the earthquake’s second anniversary, Ai initiated an Internet audio project in which volunteers recorded their readings of the names of the students who died in the earthquake. The sounds of name recitation overlapped one another, distinctively echoing in audience’s ears even when the audio is over, which contributes to one of the most impactful scenes of the whole film.
Klayman’s incorporation of not only visually compelling footage but also selective meaningful audio elements into the documentary vividly reiterates the chronic tug-of-war between Ai and the bureaucracy.
But Ai, as portrayed by Klayman, is not just defined by his political activism. A series of skillfully captured, moving scenes throughout the film indicate that he is a man who possesses genuine affections for his family.
Whether he is sharing a melon with his two-year-old son in the midst of summer or patting his nearly 80-year-old mother on the back to tell her not to worry (he was later detained for 81 days by the Chinese government), the director shows that Ai is a lot more than an visionary artist and a figurehead in a social movement.
Klayman met Ai by coincidence. She met the right person at the right time for the perfect documentary. But it’s not beginner’s luck that she managed to edit an array of archival film footage, photos, sound bites, visual effects and interviews while continuing with production during Ai’s detention — it was like production in after-production, as the director herself said in a Q&A after the film. Klayman’s knowledge of the Mandarin language helped her to translate the entire film.
Toward the end of the documentary, Ai stands in front of his studio in Shanghai. It is in the process of being torn down by the government. With nothing else left to do, he and his colleagues video taped the whole process and uploaded it onto the Internet afterward.
“Don’t retreat, re-tweet!” Ai tweeted, standing in front of the wreckage.
Maybe it is a one-man show, but it must go on. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an authentic and thorough portrait of Ai’s chronic pursuit in aesthetic, freedom of speech and human dignity. It’s no surprise that the film has recently won the special jury prize at Sundance Film Festival.
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