Friday, August 3, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Hooray for Weiwei

I had the privilege of spending two weeks touring China back in 2005 and loved the scenery, history and people I met. More recently, I gained a significant "souvenir" from the People's Republic: my adopted nephew, Maximilian. Given the many wonderful things China has provided the world, the Chinese government's ongoing intolerance of criticism directed toward it and of the citizen-dissidents increasingly voicing their valid concerns is troubling and disappointing.

One such dissident is Ai Weiwei (pronounced "Eye Way-way"), who also happens to be a globally-acclaimed artist. An excellent, revelatory new documentary about him, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Orange County after winning a Special Jury Award for "Spirit of Defiance" at January's Sundance Film Festival. The film is directed by Alison Klayman, who followed Weiwei while she lived in China from 2006-2010.

Charismatic and partly-educated in the US, Weiwei proves a thoroughly compelling subject. He rose to prominence in the art world as a photographer, filmmaker and sculptor. His design of the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing gained him international prominence. Before the Olympics had ended, however, Weiwei notoriously denounced the games as Communist Party propaganda. Shortly after, he led an effort to determine the true number of casualties resulting from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Whereas the government had reported a small number of deaths, Weiwei learned more than 80,000 citizens had lost their lives, more than 5,000 of them children who had been studying in shoddily-constructed schools.

Klayman gains intimate access not only to Weiwei but to numerous other artists, critics and Weiwei's family members, including his fretful mother and his now-3 year old son. His work is also prominently featured. Weiwei was one of the first artists anywhere to address AIDS with his 1985 exhibition, "Old Shoes Safe Sex." His most moving piece in my opinion is "Remembering," an installation consisting of 9,000 children's backpacks that serves as a memorial to the Sichuan earthquake's youngest victims that now hangs on the facade of Munich's Haus der Kunst.

Weiwei has suffered considerable persecution as a result of his continuing criticism of the Chinese government. He was beaten by police so severely he had to undergo surgery for a brain hemorrhage, had his popular blog shut down (he now communicates via Twitter and can be followed at @aiww), saw a newly-built studio bulldozed by authorities, was taxed excessively as a retaliatory move, and was ultimately held in secret detention for 80 days last year. Nothing has silenced him permanently, though, and Weiwei continues to think of himself as "an eternal optimist" despite his difficulties. As he states in the film, "I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression" no matter what the cost.

At last count, Weiwei has 40 cats who prowl his studio's grounds. One of them has learned how to open his front door by jumping up on the handle. The artist notes, "The biggest difference between people and cats is that cats will open the door but never close it behind them." Similarly, Weiwei has opened a political door in China that won't be closing any time soon, especially as more people around the world become inspired by his art and courage.

Reverend's Rating: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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