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On Movies: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' teaches important lessons

Thi article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 16, 2012 - Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are all guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, and in that sense artist-activist Ai Weiwei is very much a law-abiding citizen of the People's Republic. But his challenges to China to abide by its own laws guaranteeing personal freedom have earned him constant government surveillance, arrests, a brutal police beating, the demolition of his studio in Shanghai and, last year, almost three months in prison.

Ai Weiwei is a paradox in an intensely paradoxical country. He was one of the designers of the famous Bird's Nest stadium at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Yet he later refused to attend the opening of the games, declaring them "a tool for propaganda."

Ai's activism and his art -- it is difficult to say where one begins and the other leaves off -- have earned him international acclaim. Last year, he was one of four runners-up for Time magazine's Person of the Year. ArtReview placed him number one on its Power 100 list.

Journalist-filmmaker Alison Klayman spent much of two years with the 55-year-old conceptual artist/activist for her fine documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." She has described Ai as "a charismatic figure who, in his personal dynamism, embodies the multitude of experiences and realities in China; a sign of how China has changed and how there is more change to come."

Her film accurately captures the charisma and dynamism of Ai Weiwei as well as the cultural and political turmoil of China as it confronts and partly defines the modern world. She also makes skillful use of earlier film footage and still photographs to tell the full story of the life and work of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, the son of a poet and strong supporter of Chairman Mao who was sent with his family into rural exile and field labor during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Ai was later able to study film and art in Beijing, and spent most of the 1980s studying and working as an artist in the United States, becoming part of a thriving art scene in lower Manhattan.

He returned to Beijing in 1993, in part to help care for his ailing father. He quickly became one of the best-known artists and designers in China and his international reputation grew. He started an Internet blog followed by many thousands of people inside China and abroad. He became known for large installations that are as much architecture as what would traditionally be thought of as art.

Klayman, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, began filming "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" in late 2008, as Ai was beginning one of his most important projects, one that is a good example of the ways in which art and political activism coalesce in Ai's work.

That year, a powerful earthquake caused the collapse of thousands of buildings in western Szechuan province. More than 5,000 schoolchildren died in buildings that, critics of the government declared, were shoddily constructed out of inferior materials.

Ai Weiwei visited the devastated area and, horrified by the destruction, decided to create a memorial to the tragedy that would invoke the names of the thousands of dead children. Chinese officials, trying to play down the so-called "tofu construction," declared the names a "state secret."

Through his blog, Ai organized volunteers to press officials for the names. The artist also showed up in person to confront civil officials about the identities of the dead children. He was arrested and beaten, but persisted. As the names were unearthed, Ai posted them on his blog.

In 2009, he was invited to create a work for Munich's Haus der Kunst. His installation, "Remembering," arranged 9,000 school backpacks across the broad facade of the building to spell out the sentence "She lived happily on this earth for 7 years."

Ai Weiwei returned to China, where he has continued to anger the government by being aggressively law-abiding. "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" follows his battles closely, with strong cinema verite scenes and a cogent narrative. Ai Weiwei emerges as a complex and even contrary man who is busy redefining contemporary art and, at the same time, challenging his rapidly evolving homeland to live up to the promises laid out in its constitution.

Opens Friday Aug. 17

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