In my coulda/woulda/shoulda fantasy game of life, being a documentary filmmaker ranks pretty high up on the dream job totem pole. As such, I spend a fair amount of my limited free time thinking about WHO/WHAT I would make documentary films about, if my dreams of making documentary films were no longer dreams. And Ai WeiWei, China’s Art Dissident #1 pretty consistently keeps popping up as a dream subject in my dream life. So, when I heard that Alison Klayman, a girl of barely 27, managed to do just that, I was the first person to raise my hand in the BYT office and say “Yes please, I’ll review that.” And how? In 2006, fresh out of college, and not speaking a word of Mandarin, she simply packed her bags and left for China, looking for a story she was meant to tell. And she found it in WeiWei. Talk about dream scenarios.
If you follow the world of art even remotely, you’ve heard of Ai WeiWei. He has made sure that you have. The irrepressible provocateur, political commentator, blogger, twitter star and yes, an insanely accomplished sculptor, WeiWei has been in every magazine, newspaper, ‘zine, blog and message board since denouncing the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (after helping design Beijing National Stadium to boot). This culminates with an 81 day disappearance in 2011 after his detention by the Chinese police. The poster for the movie shows him sticking a middle finger at the National Stadium and perfectly exemplifies the attitude WeiWei has taken over the last few years. He is the closest 2012 has to a truly infamous artist and to have access to his life, work, and the stories he is trying to tell is, one imagines, truly a special privilege. A privilege and a constant source of pressure, too, especially for someone so young and essentially making their film-making debut.
Klayman handles the burden gracefully and mostly skillfully, though her role here is by no means revolutionary. She is here to do her part in the grand scheme of things, more of a collaborator and aid to WeiWei’s than as a director in a traditional sense.
The narrative methods are straightforward, even simple. She mixes contextual coverage (which explains how the country that Ai WeiWei creates and challenges in has shaped him) in with interviews with WeiWei himself. At the very start, he describes himself not as an artist but more of a chess player, waiting for his enemy to make a move before he decides on what HIS next move should be. Maybe making an internationally distributed movie about himself which can be used to spread the WeiWei word even further? Maybe.
The wanted result is even more clear: In the midst of Chinese beaurocratic oppression and military regime, WeiWei has turned his whole life into a production and, now, he finally had someone to properly document it. That was the move he decided to make and Klayman is there to help him achieve it, whether or not she’s aware of it. You can’t film an influencer without being influenced yourself.
Still, it is terrifically compelling viewing, make no mistake about it. The movie’s only issue is that, well, the story is not over. Ai WeiWei is in the headlines (again) as we speak, fighting for his appeal against tax evasion charges (which were clearly placed in an effort to shut him up) and the saga of one man’s effort to use his art to make the world a better place will keep developing for a while to come. As I type this and later as you read this and later still as you make your way to E Street to see this movie, WeiWei will not be stopping. While Klayman had to finish somewhere, this does feel just like Episode 1, with a cliffhanger.
So, here’s to a sequel? Because, why not? WeiWei certainly deserves one, if not even an omnibus.