An unprecedented inside look at Chinese politics and a fascinating tour of modern art at the same time.
In what may be the best political documentary of 2012, writer/director Alison Klayman takes us into the heart of modern day Chinese politics. The subject of the film is artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, a man whose art is inextricably bound to revealing the truth in a country where truth is a privilege granted only to a few.
The artist plumbs a bottomless well of media and formats to shed light on injustice and criminal corruption of vast scope and extreme danger. In so doing, he risks his life, and the lives of his family and friends, on a daily basis.
The film is centered on the artist’s publication of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The quake devastated entire cities with the virulence that is peculiar to countries with sub-standard building methods.
The death and damage attributable to single-family homes was bad enough, however, that was not the worst tragedy. The most heart breaking damage was the deaths of over 5,000 students trapped in illegally constructed schools.
These schools, built with defective concrete and reinforcing steel, became death traps as the walls and columns collapsed, causing the floors to trap and kill the students.
Has the schools been built by private enterprise there would have been prosecutions lasting for a decade. In China, however, these schools were built by a cadre of government officials, their friends and their families.
Through a complex network of secret agreements, officials looked the other way while they shared profits and kickbacks with crooked builders, architects and engineers. The future of the students was sealed as trusted professionals made off with millions.
Ai Weiwei’s artwork dramatizes this tragedy through a variety of large-scale installation artworks that cannot be ignored. His life is a never-ending tightrope act that dares the government to silence him as he lives a life devoid of civil rights. He has been arrested, detained and beaten by Chinese authorities more times than he can remember.
In 2011 he was arrested, held for two months and subjected to physical and mental torture. This film covers his release, complete with the “1000 mile stare” that has become the hallmark of post-traumatic stress syndrome and his gradual return to a semi-normal life. One can only imagine the promises the authorities made to him regarding the futures of his family and friends if he persisted in drawing attention to the corruption and civil rights abuses endemic in modern day China.
It is only through international publicity and pressure that Chinese like Ai Weiwei are allowed to live. Well on its way to becoming the leading power in the world, China is not immune to international condemnation of its horrific lack of human rights. It is through films like this that the country will be forced to take the first steps towards a fair and just society.
China will hardly be the first country to go through this transformation. It happened in the USA during our civil war, our civil rights movement, our anti-war protests and our current day demonstrations against Wall Street corruption. It is sad, but true, that the heroes of these struggles usually die penniless and alienated, their efforts largely unsung during their lifetimes.
Watching this film makes Americans think back to those glory days of American self-expression during the Viet Nam War protests and the civil right marches in the south. It reminds us that there was a time when we spoke our minds. Perhaps it also reminds us that those days, and those attitudes, seems to be part of our past as we enjoy the wealth and freedom that we take for granted.
Great interviews with activists Danqing Chen, Ying Gao and Changwei Gu, part of the brigade of outspoken government critics who are constantly on the run, one step ahead of prison and torture. In addition, a beautiful parade of imaginative and stirring artworks on the grand scale that has made Ai an international celebrity even as he battles to recover from the brain damage inflicted on him by Chinese police.
His work varies from walls of names of the students killed in the earthquakes to a video of his purposefully destroying an ancient Chinese vase. His one hundred million hand painted porcelain “seeds” displayed at the Tate Modern in London was open for the public to walk on, sit on the play in until the museum itself stopped the access due to porcelain dust health concerns. Every work of art he creates becomes a performance in and of itself.
If this film were nothing more than a travelogue of a great artist it would be worth the price of admission. However, the inspiration that Ai Weiwei brings to the audience by his sheer determination and will has a value far beyond the millions of dollars his works have fetched on the open market.
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Directed and Written by: Alison Klayman
Featuring: Danqing Chen, Ying Gao and Changwei Gu
Release Date: July 27, 2012
MPAA: Rated R for some language
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Language: English / Mandarin