2013-04-24 / Arts and Entertainment

Depot Docs Profiles an Unlikely Chinese Hero

Ai Weiwei documentary screens in Garrison
By Annie Chesnut

Bird’s Nest-Beijing, designed by Ai Weiwei. 
Annie Chesnut Bird’s Nest-Beijing, designed by Ai Weiwei. Annie Chesnut In Garrison on Friday night, the audience at the Depot Theater met filmmaker Alison Klayman, whose documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a profile of modern China’s most famous dissident artist.

One Artist Documents Another

In the film, Klayman introduces us to the large, bearded bear of a man who grew up knowing what it means to be “different” in China. His father, Ai Qing, was a poet and intellectual, publicly shamed and exiled with his family to perform hard labor in the Chinese countryside in the late 1950s. Eventually the family returned to Beijing, where Ai Weiwei studied filmmaking and embarked on an avant garde art career that included more than a decade in the United States, studying at Parsons and the Art Students League, in Manhattan.

Ai Weiwei’s resume includes film, architecture, sculpture, photography, and installation art, and his most memorable collaboration may be the famous “bird’s nest” national stadium built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Not surprisingly, he later denounced the event over the government’s ferocious seizure and destruction of individual homes and neighborhoods for the massive Olympic complex.

Klayman, barely 30, is a brave and talented American artist who spent four years in China when she was fresh out of college. She follows Ai Weiwei as he and his entourage—in a sort of story-within-a-story—use tweeting, digital photos and video to document the reality of Ai Weiwei’s efforts to expose the rigid state control that still characterizes China’s approach to its critics.

A Hybrid Society

China has a long and rich artistic history. Delicate landscape scrolls were the classic art form for centuries, and high-born women were treated as living works of art, with pale ivory skin and painfully “sculpted” bound feet. In contract, post-revolutionary posters showed strong women with brown faces and square feet, proudly toiling in the fields.

Today, it’s a hybrid society that encompasses ancient traditions, strict government control on many levels, and technology that enables some personal freedom through digital communication.

There is an area in Beijing called 798 Art Zone, an old factory neighborhood, really, dotted with galleries, stores and restaurants. The vibe there is that of a rundown community now gentrified: Greenwich Village or even Beacon.

But aside from the galleries and more formal installations there are also examples of “street art” as it’s practiced with relative abandon on walls and sidewalks in other parts of the world. The continued existence of the Zone is in doubt, though, since development everywhere in Beijing is rampant.

In a parallel story, Beijing supported the construction of a modern studio complex for Ai Weiwei and within years ordered it torn down. He filmed and photographed the entire demolition process.

Digital in Common

On our first day in Beijing last September, my husband and I saw the centuries-old Forbidden City on one side of a bustling boulevard, and the infamous Tiananmen Square, with Mao’s tomb sitting squarely nearby, on the other. Straight-backed, cheerless, and heavily armed soldiers were everywhere, as were fashionable young couples, families, and tour groups from all over the world, and China. The common denominator in this mass of humanity: the camera phone.

In this digital age people both in and outside China’s borders can reach open minds in ways that were never before possible. Ai Weiwei has used his prodigious skills to shame Beijing over the deaths of thousands of children in the deadly earthquake collapse of poorly constructed Sichuan schools, and to reveal how the government tried to silence his support of other Chinese activists.

All of that is what makes the story of Ai Weiwei so inspiring. For he, too, is using his own art to provide a counterpoint to the propaganda that the State churns out with such industrial efficiency. In a Beijing compound surrounded by state-installed video cameras he lives with his wife, his art, a number of cats and dogs, and a young son. He was incarcerated in 2011 for nearly three months, sparking worldwide concern and protest among his followers. After his release, Klayman tells us in the film, he appeared chastened and even humbled. But before long he began tweeting again.

Inspiring Surprise

Celebrated Philipstown area film editor Toby Shimin, who helps select the Depot screenings, told the PCN&R: “One of my favorite things about co-curating Depot Docs is finding filmmakers who surprise and inspire our audience. When Alison took the stage after the screening, the audience was visibly startled by how young she was. I heard one man say, ‘She’s no older than my daughter!’ During the extensive Q &A, I think her remarkable ambition and path that led her to making Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry deeply impressed everyone ... We look forward to following Alison’s next films and bringing them to Depot Docs in the future.”

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