For a guy whose life is in legal limbo in China where the authorities hold his passport and keep him under constant surveillance Ai Weiwei has a way of getting his voice heard around the world.
A couple of months ago, Ai was featured in a National Public Radio story about the disuse of the facilities from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Ai designed the famous "bird's nest" stadium, and just as famously refused to set foot in the place because it has become a central symbol in Chinese government propaganda.) And last month, Ai wrote a review in the British paper The Guardian of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics, a show that he said "had the human touch. In Zhang Yimou's opening ceremony [in Beijing] there was almost none of that."
Even Alison Klayman, the filmmaker who chronicled the Chinese artist/activist's life and work in the new documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," was surprised.
"These are the moments where Weiwei says those bold things that kind of shock me," Klayman said in a recent phone interview.
The film which won a special jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and opens today at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas is a deep profile of Ai's life, his political commentary and his art, and the collisions of all three.
Ai Weiwei is something of a rock star in China and in international art circles. At the movie's start, he's prepping for art shows in London and São Paulo, with another exhibition in Munich shown along the way. He's famous for thumbing his nose at authority or, literally, flipping the bird at it. (The photo of him giving the middle finger to Tiananmen Square has become the image of the movie's poster. When Klayman accepted the award at Sundance, she took a photo for Ai of the audience flipping off the camera. I was in the front row.)
But authority in China has a habit of striking back. The movie depicts Ai's investigations of deaths in 2008's Sichuan province earthquake and the accusations of shoddy school construction that led to the deaths of thousands of children there. While in Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, local police tailed Ai and, in one harrowing scene, raided his hotel room and punched him in the head.
Since that incident, as the film shows, Ai has been hit with accusations of tax evasion which came with a bill for $2.4 million.
The tax case is pending, said Klayman, who spoke to Ai on the phone a few weeks ago and keeps in regular contact through "the standard text-and-Twitter menu."
"The cumulative effect of 14 months is statis," she said. "Despite the waves of bold statements, he still has to be cautious. … It's a disappointing outcome of the range of outcomes."
Ai is a rabid user of Twitter and social media, harnessing the same power of the Internet that was demonstrated by the "Arab Spring" movement and the open access of WikiLeaks.
"In 2009, he was talking about this stuff before it happened," Klayman said. "The power has certainly been proven elsewhere."
Klayman has been in touch with colleagues in China, and they say things have gotten worse for dissidents and journalists in the past year or so. There has always been some room for commentary about the government, she said, but in the past two years, "that room has really been shrinking."
Klayman has seen the impact of her movie on audiences, including Chinese living in the United States. At a screening for Chinese students in Los Angeles, one of the students talked about how the younger generation who are studying abroad feel the responsibility to work for democracy, Klayman said.
As the movie reaches more audiences, it "has the power to really shape international audiences' ideas about China," Klayman said. "I always knew that was possible. It [can be] a window into the Chinese reality."
Whether anyone in China will see it is another matter. It's impossible to get formal distribution for the film in China, but Klayman said it will eventually go viral.
"I've seen conversations saying to bootleg it now," she said.
Sean P. Meanswrites The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.