Review of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Directed by Alison Klayman
By KENDRICK KUO
Ai Weiwei is an unknown, strange sounding name to most Americans, but Americans are nonetheless becoming more aware of the plight of Chinese dissidents. Earlier this year the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, known for protesting against forced abortions, escaped from house arrest and fled to the U.S. Consulate. He eventually struck a deal with the Chinese government, allowing him to pursue academic interests atNew YorkUniversityunder the patronage of legal scholar Jerome Cohen. Also this year, Li Wangyang, an imprisoned human rights activist, was found hanging in his hospital room where he was undergoing treatment (whether it was in fact a suicide is hotly debated). Perhaps most famously, Liu Xiaobo drafted Charter ’08 and was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned for “inciting subversion of state power.” Some of these names may be familiar, and others not.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an essential account of Ai Weiwei’s journey to becoming the celebrity that he is. This is Alison Klayman’s first film and is a very bare-bones product, with no narrator and consisting primarily of footage taken following Ai around. In the film, Klayman shows how Ai’s career as a political artist and dissenter is an important part ofChina’s contemporary political scene. It also shows that Ai Weiwei the man lives the lifestyle of dissent. All the footage in the documentary can be viewed as performance art. And by learning about Ai Weiwei’s story, we get the bitter taste of existence without the luxury of freedom of expression.Ai Weiwei’s career began inSichuan.Sichuanexperienced an earthquake in 2008, which sparked an outcry because the deaths stemmed mainly from buildings poorly designed and constructed. Ai Weiwei began a project to compile the names of those who perished in order to get an accurate death toll number. Later in 2008, Ai helped designed the Beijing Olympics “Birds Nest” stadium, only to boycott the games as a propaganda fest for the Communist Party. When Ai Weiwei travels to Chengdu to testify at a fellow activist’s trial, he is detained by police in his hotel room and even struck in the head—footage of this is actually included in the film. The blow landed him in the hospital for surgery to address brain swelling. His attempts to hold the police accountable was also filmed.
To get a true sense of the sequence of events and the kind of man Ai Weiwei is, watch the documentary. It is well worth your time. He is certainly a man of flaws: he had a child through an extra-marital affair. He is also a man of controversy: he took photos of himself giving the middle finger to theForbidden Cityand in front of the White House. There is also a set of photos showing him shattering a Han dynasty urn on the ground. But he is also a man of courage, whereby his struggle against the status quo is integral to his lifestyle. And this courage and holistic lifestyle are strikingly similar to the admirable characteristics of Christians persevering under the brunt of communist rule.The plight of persecuted Christians has preceded the likes of Ai Weiwei, not to mention Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng, and Li Wangyang. Their voices, speaking the truth, have been silenced behind bars. At one point in Never Sorry, Ai Weiwei acknowledges that most Chinese people have no idea who he is. He verbalizes this while watching the announcement that Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. People like Liu and Ai are celebrities in the West, but largely anonymous in their own country. The same is true for imprisoned Christians. A few months ago, while sitting down for lunch with a Chinese national, I explained that Jesus warned his disciples of persecution. When I later extrapolated that Chinese Christians currently face this reality, he was flabbergasted since he’d been taught growing up thatChina was a place of religious freedom.
Both Chinese Christians and Chinese human right activists are known through word of mouth and increasingly through multimedia. Organizations like International Christian Concern bring tragic stories to the forefront of the American consciousness. Books like The Heavenly Manhave made the rounds among American evangelicals. In the same way, Ai Weiwei made his cause known through Twitter, bypassing the Great Firewall and handing out free copies of documentaries he’s made.
In 2011, Ai Weiwei disappeared after being held by Chinese authorities and was questioned for over 80 days, only to be released on a one-year probation during which he is forbidden from advocating political reform. He is bombarded as he gets out of a car in front of his house, reporters hurling questions at him regarding the detention he’s just been released from. Almost sheepishly, Ai mumbles that he can’t discuss the matter and closes the doors to his house. In almost shocking contrast, the film closes with an interview recorded after his release, where Ai rings a triumphant note, assuring his listeners that he will forge ahead. Most recently, he has been battling government fines for tax evasion, which he claims are empty accusations.
When the religious leaders charged the apostles in Acts to stop preaching the gospel, Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). In the same way, may we as Christians continue to speak of the good news in spite of opposition, whether it be by the state or non-state actors. Our goal is not political reform, but heart reform. Our hope is not this life, but the next. Our victory is secure in Christ. And because of this we will never be sorry.