Ever since her film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, director Alison Klayman has had to embrace the idea of getting large groups of people to give her the middle finger.
“That side of Ai Weiwei, I particularly enjoy,” says Klayman, who nonetheless shows all sides of the multifaceted Chinese dissident artist in her award-winning documentary, which opens in theaters this week.
But as much of a kick as Klayman gets out of raising index fingers all the way from Park City to Berlin on the festival circuit, she does so for the quite serious benefit of Ai.
After transforming the middle-finger gesture from a vulgarity into a sign of hopeful rebellion against the truly offensive censorship that persists in his home country, Ai Weiwei has been unable to accompany the film. The artist is at home fighting charges of tax evasion that, for reasons Never Sorry lays out, are motivated by the Chinese government’s desire to silence him.
Never Sorry spends four years with the conceptual artist, capturing the rise of Ai as a social media butterfly, but butterfly as powerhouse. Ai has used Twitter, Facebook and a personal blog (since shut down) as forums perfectly attuned to his personality. The artist is playful at times and fiercely determined at others to spread the truth about China’s policies.
His on-the-ground and crowd-sourced investigation of the poor construction of schools that led to the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and his exposure of a government campaign to ignore or underreport those deaths, appear to be what triggers the policymaker backlash against him.
“Through showing him, I thought it would be a really interesting perspective on modern China,” says Klayman, noting that while the Internet has given Chinese citizens a greater ability to spread the word about their circumstances, the government seems more intent than ever to suppress their free expression. Startling footage of Ai being beaten at the hands of police in the film back up that view.
Still, Klayman is frustrated every once in a while when she hears a compliment for her film prefaced by something to the effect of, “Thank God, I don’t live in China.”
The filmmaker sees her film as posing one of the most important universal questions of our time: What can individuals do to effect change locally? She recognizes that rights of expression can be threatened anywhere.
Last fall, Klayman attempted to post nude photos Ai took of himself and his Twitter fans. The photos had been published in The Guardian and on the film’s nascent Facebook page. Still, the director found her own personal account suspended by the social networking site. Klayman documented the episode on the Huffington Post, which along with help from The Guardian’s China correspondent, helped her reclaim her patch of online territory.
Klayman is happy to report, “After a couple hours, magically, my Facebook account was reinstated.”
Maybe Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry will work similar magic in a much bigger way.
“Ai Weiwei’s concerned with China because he is a Chinese citizen,” says the filmmaker. “So the takeaway is how can you be an engaged citizen?”
Where is a place in your neighborhood that people can effect change locally? Name them in COMMENTS.
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore