December 29, 2012 -- Artists in general are known for defying convention and breaking the norms of society. They are often criticized for anti-social behavior, sometimes justifiably so. But sometimes they also bravely stand up for the rights of common people and advance admirable social causes. One such artist is Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist and social activist who has taken on social causes in China at considerable risk to himself and his family.
This documentary film explores Ai Weiwei's art and his social activism. To say Ai Weiwei is an interesting character is an understatement. From his 40 cats roaming his studio (including one amazing feline who is seen leaping into the air to open a closed door) to his child out of wedlock, to his literally giving the finger to authorities, he is an unconventional social activist and a thorn in the side of the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party. He is also a very non-traditional artist who has mastered the use of the Internet to get his message across to the world, despite government censorship.
Some of Ai WeiWei's social activism, while daring in China, seems strange in the U.S. where the media loves disaster stories. One of his projects was to get a lot of volunteers to go to a number of towns hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and get lists of those killed. The government suppressed the information because many of those killed in the earthquake were children who died because of the collapse of shoddy, poorly-constructed government-built schools. An estimated 68,000 people died in the quake.
Ai WeiWei's volunteers collected the names of many of these victims. Ai WeiWei compiled the names into lists which he put on the internet in a variety of forms. The government responded by shutting his web site down. When Ai WeiWei went to Chengdu in 2009 as part of an effort to investigate the shoddy construction, he was attacked by police and later had to have brain surgery to repair a cerebral hemorrhage caused by the attack. In the film, Ai WeiWei is shown confronting the police officer who he says assaulted him. He seems fearless in this confrontation.
The only time in the film that Ai WeiWei seems tentative and cautious is right after he was abducted and held by authorities for nearly three months. Upon his release on June 22, 2011, Ai WeiWei was very hesitant to talk to the press. He had almost nothing to say about his arrest and detention. It appeared that Ai WeiWei was frightened by what had happened to him. According to the film, he later started talking to the press again, as he had before the arrest.
This film is an interesting mixture of social activism and performance art. Sometimes these are one and the same. This film rates a B+.
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