Thursday October 11, 2012

HARRISVILLE, N.H.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry -- Outlaws have been the subject of films for years. An entire movie genre was constructed around the dramatic potential of renegades living by their own code in the anarchic days of the western frontier. Westerns like "The Searchers" (1965), "Unforgiven" (1992) and even "Dead Man" (1996) explored the nature of living by your own moral code, and also living with the consequences of your actions in a lawless environment.

Such behavior was certainly an inherent element in the vast expanse of the untamed western territories. By contrast, a country as politically repressive and militant as China makes such radical thinking almost unthinkable. Which means the subversive attitudes and actions of political conceptual artist Ai Weiwei paint him as an outlaw in his own right. The Wild West may have been a dangerous place back in the day, but when you live your life with open contempt for government policies in China, it can prove to be just as dangerous.

For that reason, the documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is as much a provocative history of China’s human rights violations and oppressive policies as it is a compelling account of the life of the artist. Of course, everyone is aware of the Tienanman Square Massacre in 1989 thanks to the media coverage that was provided during that tense period of time when the whole world was watching. The image of a single student carrying groceries facing off against an enormous military tank is the kind of startling image that remains seared into your brain for life.

As you can imagine, this proves to be just the tip of the iceberg as Ai Weiwei has made it a mission in his life to expose the Chinese government’s many human rights violations either though his art or other media. His life itself has become a political statement, an attitude that invades his art with such a sense of purpose that it becomes impossible to ignore.

For example, after a disastrous earthquake hit the Sichuan province in 2008, the Chinese government refused to release the names of all the citizens who were killed, many of whom were schoolchildren, for fear that it would expose the shoddy building practices that caused many of the deaths. Instead, the government was more concerned with protecting the country’s image during the Olympics being held in Beijing. In response, Ai Weiwei began withdrawing his efforts for a massive art project that had been commissioned from the government’s Olympic committee. He also devoted an entire year to unearthing the name of every single child and adult that was killed in the event to recognize their lives in a way the government refused to. Weiwei then created an entire art project to the event, installing an enormous sign on the side of the Haus der Kunst building in Munich, Germany, made entirely of schoolchildren’s backpacks to remind everyone of the loss.

Also, in 2010 when Weiwei was given a governmental grant to create a state of the art studio for artists to work, his international celebrity was seen as an example of Chinese pride. However, once Weiwei’s actions were seen as threatening to the government’s sense of control over the general population, they ordered the brand new building to be razed to the ground. Weiwei’s response? He threw a party amidst the rubble of the demolition that not only solidified his belief that his spirit would not be broken, but also gave the event the kind of publicity that the government was specifically trying to suppress.

Fortunately, filmmaker Alison Klayman’s excellent documentary refuses to revere Weiwei merely as a saint, disclosing a less altruistic side such as his extramarital affair and the child his mistress bore as a result. Weiwei is even curiously unapologetic about the fact -- perhaps embarrassed, perhaps revealing a misogynist side or perhaps displaying the size of his personal ego. The result provides a fuller picture of the man, portraying Weiwei as not some political martyr, but as a human being that paints a greater picture of the man himself.

It does become alarming when, at one point in the film, Weiwei is in fact arrested and detained by the government for months, with no one knowing where he is or what has happened to him. His subsequent release is almost as distressing, as Weiwei’s initial response to television cameras on his return home suggest a changed man, preferring not to comment, and stoking fears that his rebellious spirit had been broken.

Fortunately, it is only a matter of time before Weiwei is back to his old ways, stirring up trouble and refusing to apologize for it. It’s a display of determination that makes "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" a compelling story on a number of levels -- a display of Weiwei’s artistic accomplishments, a history of China’s repressive political policies and the artist’s personal mission to uncover the truth. Perhaps most importantly for Americans, especially in this political year, the movie serves as a reminder of how our own country’s policies concerning free speech and democracy should never be taken for granted.

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is rated R and is playing at the Redfern Arts Center on Brickyard Pond at Keene State College for one week only starting Friday. Visit www.keene.edu or call 603-358-2160 for showtimes.

Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.