The most telling contrast in Alison Klayman’s film about Ai Weiwei is in his voice. When the Chinese artist and activist is speaking English, his voice is calm and measured, patiently and steadily guiding the viewer through his philosophy, art, and politics (he uses this voice with his mother too). But in scenes when he speaks in his native tongue, his voice becomes an aggressive bark, dropping in pitch and spitting vitriol at policemen and other authority figures. In her intimate documentary that screened at the True/False Film Festival last weekend, Klayman shows Ai to be equally capable of projecting both sides, revealing both his humanity and his extraordinary power.
From his early experience as an artist in New York in the ‘80s, to his commission for the Beijing Olympic stadium, and to his subsequent status as an important political and artistic agitator, Ai’s unique trajectory makes him a uniquely powerful figure. Klayman follows the defiant “Teacher Ai” as his situation escalates: he spends a year collecting and listing the names of every child killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (most by shoddy construction of schools), information that the government will not reveal. He posts the list on his blog, which is taken down, and so he turns to Twitter to disseminate volleys of information. Upon a return to Sichuan, he is beaten by a police officer during an interrogation. A month later, he is setting up an exhibition in Munich, a retrospective full of conceptually charged and insightful work, while receiving treatment for brain swelling from the beating. Then he is repeatedly filing police reports on the beating, assembling massive groups of followers, engaging and tweaking police with almost gleeful calm, and posting Twitter messages about everything. Klayman has close access to Ai throughout, and many of the scenes are harrowing or enlightening.
Finally, Klayman tracks the most recent – and most harrowing – episode of Ai’s career, in which he disappeared for 81 days and was released by the authorities into a sort of house arrest, forbidden from any significant activity and clearly humbled in a shocking way. This open-ended coda charges the film as Ai’s release from house arrest in June 2012 looms, showing his freedom to be unstable by any measure.
Along with her magnetic subject, Klayman makes it easy for Western viewers to get behind the artist’s program, which uses transparency and truth-telling as a driving force against the oppressive Chinese authorities. The most touchy subject in the film, surprisingly, is Ai (who is married) having a child with a “friend” that we understand to be a mistress. Kkayman’s treatment of this mini-scandal is light but firm, forcing or allowing Ai to tell his own story, and it’s in this commitment to transparency that her film best shows its admiration for its subject.