Sunday, July 28, 2013

Never Sorry: Ai Wei Wei Documentary at Asia Society

This past Wednesday night, I went to the Asia Society in Admiralty to watch a screening of the documentary about artist and activist Ai Weiwei, titled "Never Sorry". 

Asia Society provided a good summary:
Ai Weiwei is one of China's most celebrated contemporary artists, and its most outspoken domestic critic. Having first risen to international prominence in 2008 after helping design Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and then publicly denouncing the Games as party propaganda, Ai's critiques of China's regime have ranged from playful photographs of his raised middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square to searing memorials of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in shoddy government construction during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Against a backdrop of strict censorship, Ai's witty use of the social media to inform his followers has turned him into an Internet champion. 

The film itself was pretty well done, although it raised more questions than it answered. I approached the film with some background knowledge of Ai Weiwei but not too much - I had always followed news of his documentaries and art exhibitions with some interest.  I left feeling like I still did not really understand the artists' motivations. 

His art and activism are very much intertwined - to a point where it's impossible to tell where one begins and one ends.  Freedom of speech, and the freedom to create, is obviously very important to him as an artist.  And he obviously holds a lot of anger towards his government (as evidenced by his middle finger in front of major government structures or his "Fck you, mother country" art campaign).  But what drives his anger and what does he ultimately want to achieve? 

To be fair, there were some points when this was tangentially dealt with in the film. Once, when asked why he was creating the Sichuan earthquake memorial - and he responded, "These are single children, of parents who are very poor, who have put all of their hopes into their next generation. And then these children are gone, just like that. Don't their parents deserve to know if the government used shoddy construction?" And again, when the filmmaker asks him, after he was struck by the police in the head, "Do you want the government to apologize?" And he said, "No, I want them to know that they can't get away with doing that." But these seem like very specific answers to a much bigger problem.   At the end of the film, he mentions that he wants to leave the country a better place for his son, because his father's generation failed to make the country a better place for him.  But as I said, I left still wondering, exactly what in Ai Weiwei's mind would make China a better place, and how does he believe that his actions to date are the best way to bring about results?

I think my ambivalence toward him stems from the scenes in the film where I felt like he was employing what I call Michael Moore tactics - deliberately antagonizing those he encounters or asking questions that cannot help but put them in a bad light.  For example, snatching the sunglasses off of a police official who had previously attacked him, marching up to security guards with multiple cameras, responding to officials with roundabout answers, or taking pictures when guards have said that pictures are not allowed.  These seemed like cheap shots and struck me as distasteful. 

A note on the venue: despite being a member of the Asia Society for months now, I have been woefully negligent of attending any events there.  This was my first time setting foot on the property and facilities.  It's lovely!  I coudn't help gaping at how much space the Asia Society has.  In land-hungry Hong Kong, it just seemed so exquisitely extravagant that everywhere I looked I was mentally visualizing $$$.

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