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We Put Ai Weiwei and China on the Screen
from Amnesty International   USA Local Group 361



In May 2013 we were able to share this documentary film with the public thanks to the co-sponsorship of WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio THE LINDA and grant funds from Amnesty International USA.

An award winning film by Alison Klayman you will want to see , and can see -- as you may now purchase the DVD, or get it through IFCFilms On DEMAND available through Time Warner Cable or DISH Network (as of May 2013) or rent it through subscription services such as Netflix, Sundance, YouTube, etc. You may also try your local library which may be able to get the DVD through its shared services. It never hurts to call.

NOTE TO PARENTS: The IFC FILMS website suggests the movie for those who are 18 and older. You may want to pre-view the movie before showing it to your child or teenager.


Film website with trailer.

* Sundance Juried Award * New York Times Critics Pick *

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ABOUT THE MOVIE: China’s most famous and boldest artist as well as its most mischievous dissident exists within the person of Ai Weiwei. Good luck touched the world when Alison Klayman presented this film with an insider’s view of his actions and reactions as the tensions between the artist and China grew from 2008 - 2010. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, or plan to see it, the artist and his responses to China’s censorship are apt to fascinate you. If you see the movie, you may even laugh out loud at some of Ai Weiwei’s antics in response to police surveillance and surveillance cameras (our audience did). The underlying subject matter is, however, serious. Ai Weiwei pointed his finger at China for failing to report the number of deaths, and the reason for the deaths of 5,212 school children, as well the country’s lack of freedom of expression. See reviews and other information.

OUR SCREENING Q & A led by Gene Damm Educational Director of US China Peoples Friendship Association answered questions and proposed some of his own. One of the first questions after the movie was where did Ai Weiwei get the money to put on the exhibits at the museums, etc. Gene Damm responded that he is well paid to set up the exhibits, and the museums pay for the shipping and materials. He pointed out the early interview in the film with a curator who stated that Ai Weiwei had been at a point in his art career where he could have brought in significant monies for himself within China if he had not chosen to speak out on China’s lack of freedom for citizen’s to express

Another audience question was whether Ai Weiwei was able to pay his sizeable tax bill that China imposed on him after his imprisonment. The answer is that many supporters recognized the bill as a ruse, and gave him the monies. Some, wanting to be unknown to the Chinese government chose the cover of night to toss monies over the wall around Ai Weiwei’s home at night, sometimes folded into a paper airplane.

A question from Gene Damm revealed a divided opinion as to whether Ai Weiwei was a true artist: one person in the audience thought Ai Weiwei primarily an activist; but, someone else described his exhibit at the Smithsonian as an end to the question - - he’s an artist. Two in the audience had seen his exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn in Washington DC (that exhibit closed) and highly recommend that, if possible, everyone see it. The exhibit continues in at least two other locations: Indianopolis Museum through July 21, 2013; or, Ontario through October 27, 2013. There may be other locations. Update - is Ai Weiwei an artist, or? In 2013, Ai Weiwei sent an exhibit to Singapore that involved milk powder for babies in the shape of a map of China highlighting the deaths of 6 babies, and the thousands who were ill from China’s milk powder. This, and other, exhibits created some comments on Ai Weiwei’s art. See more.

Gene Damm gave us food for thought a number of times. He pointed out that the Chinese government did not use the same terms when arresting Ai Weiwei as they did others. With other dissidents, which included other critics of the poor construction of school buildings, as well as those who called for a multi-party government, the charges were more apt to be worded ‘‘inciting subversion’’ These terms were not applied to Ai Weiwei when he was detained. An AIUSA Local Group 361 member conjectures that Ai Weiwei’s open personality , with the ability to twist China’s actions and words against them, along with his popularity means the word ‘ssubversive’ does not easily fit him and would not be readily accepted. The biographical Timeline from the film distributor notes that Ai Weiwei signed the Charater 08 document that suggests more than one party in China - - which easily could have led to the use of the term ’’subversive’’. Our local group does believe that he enjoys what freedom and safety that he does today because of his supporters around the world.

Maureen, our AIUSA Local Group Member who introduced the film that night, concluded the program by saying that each one in the audience had helped protect Ai Weiwei by attending the film - - as that gave China the message that his fame and followers continue. After the program, an audience member questioned that statement. Gene Damm confirmed that it was true that China did track film showings and audience numbers.

    NOTE: If you would like to know more about Ai Weiwei’s humor, you may enjoy a take on it in the blog that appeared in the New York Times in 2012 by Nicholas D Kristof (co-author of Half the Sky: Hitting China With Humor. You may also be interested in an online search of the books by Ai Weiwei sold in this country. Definitely, the book with his blog is not sold in China. You may also get a laugh from the movie which shows how his three books, White, Grey, and Black were distributed within China. They were not, and are not, available on China’s open market.

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Please use our background materials as an FYI, or to enhance your viewing experience.

Q: How do you pronounce Ai Weiwei?

A: Pronunciation key: Ai Weiwei = Eye Wayway - from http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Ai-Weiwei-According-to-What-4716

Q: What does serving river crabs mean?

A: It is a sly reference to the Mandarin word hexie, which means both river crab and harmonious. Among critics of China’s censorship regime, hexie has become a buzzword for opposition to the government’s call to create a harmonious society. from www.nytimes.com/2010/11/06/world/asia/06china.html?

Who is Ai Weiwei? A Chinese citizen and artist, architect, designer, filmographer, sculptor and more. The list of his endeavors are long. His exhibits have been at the Smithsonian and other museums in the USA. Recently (May 2013) he composed heavy metal music, and danced gangham style on YouTube. He’s been described as the designer of the Bird’s Nest Stadium. (He collaborated with an architectural firm.) Built for the 2008 Olympics in China, the stadium has been described as a centerpiece for the Olympics. Ai Weiwei disavowed the stadium as a ‘‘smile on China’s face‘‘ which hid the fact China cannot make its people happy. The death of 5,000 plus children in the Sichuan earthquake because of negligence in the construction of their school houses provoked his statements. As China prevented discussion of the tragedy by the children’s parents, Ai Weiwei led a citizen’s investigation of the the deaths revealing the number of deaths, and publicized them.

His revelations on the children’s deaths began on his three year online blog which grew more and more critical of the repressions in China. This made him a hero to many Chinese, and won him supporters worldwide. However, he become a thorn in China’s side as the government did not want such revelations. Thus, his supporters are key to his well being.

When China gave him a tax bill exceeding a million dollars, supporters recognized the bill as another effort to suppress the artist’s efforts and sent him monies. Not wanting to be targeted by the government, some supporters sent their donations in the form of paper airplanes over the wall that surrounds Ai Weiwei’s home.

His art further expresses and shapes his message. For instance, the Hirschhorn exhibit at the Smithsonian included a large scale serpent spread through more than one room. Colorful children’s backpacks embellish its shining white surface to illustrate the unnecessary deaths.

Despite the police following him, surveillance cameras on his house, and the government’s tearing down of his studio, Ai Weiwei continues to speak out for free speech, although this ability to do so is now fragile. As of May 2013, China withholds his passport and the police continue to follow him.

Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous international artist, and its most outspoken domestic critic. Against a backdrop of strict censorship and an unresponsive legal system, Ai expresses himself, organizes people through art and social media, finding support around the world. In response, Chinese authorities have shut down his blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio, and held him in secret detention. Ai Weiwei’s art and life are imbued with wit - and so are his responses to the Chinese government. Fortunately, his unique, and often humorous responses to China have been caught on film.

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A TRAILER FROM THE FILM shares Ai Weiwei art related to the earthquake. The blues, reds, and yellows hanging from the wall come from backpacks depicting the children lost in the Sichuan earthquake. Hear the words of the parents of a little girl which poignantly share the story of the children who lost their lives in May of 2008.

See his artworkfrom these links:

  • First, 2013 exhibit and interviews of Ai Weiwei;
  • Second, from the UK’s Telegraph;
  • From the New York Times, pictures and an article on the Birds Nest Stadium which he helped conceive, but disavowed as not representing the troubles in China;
  • Lastly, recent artwork by Ai Weiwei depicting his experience while he was detained by the Chinese government in 2011 in this New York Times article An Artist Depicts his Demons. .

    For a deeper understanding of the meaning of Ai Weiwei’s art, you may want to see these links:

    • CBS video biography with interpretations of artpieces;
    • NPR: In ‘According To What?’ Ai Weiwei Makes Mourning Subversive from All Things Considered.

      Time magazine interview of the artist in 2011.

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      Director/Cinematographer/Co-Editor/Co-Producer: Alison Klayman is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. While living in China from 2006-2010, she produced radio and television feature stories for PBS Frontline, National Public Radio, AP Television and others. She also began shooting her debut documentary feature, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, following the artist/activist for two years and gaining unprecedented access to his life and work. The film was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. She earned her BA at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She speaks Mandarin Chinese and Hebrew.

      Editor: Jennifer Fineran edited A Powerful Noise, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2008. Other credits include Confederacy Theory for PBS Independent Lens; Everybody Knows...Elizabeth Murray, produced and directed by Academy Award-nominee Kristi Zea; and documentary programming for MTV, Bravo, etc.

      Producer: Adam Schlesinger is an award-winning independent film producer based in New York. He produced the Sundance Film Festival selections: Smash His Camera, which won for Best Director; Page One: Inside the New York Times; and God Grew Tired of Us, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.


      1. Ilan Isakov is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and composer based in Philadelphia. He has written music for television, theatre and contemporary dance. A long-time friend and collaborator of director Alison Klayman, he scored several of her documentary shorts including "Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993." Never Sorry is his first feature-length film score.
      2. Zuoxiao Zuzhou: Zuzhou (real name Wu Hongjin) is a Beijing-based rock musician, poet and contemporary artist. A founding participant in the early ‘90s avant-garde artist community ‘‘East Village’’ in Beijing, inspired by Ai Weiwei, he composed the music for many of Ai’s underground documentaries. During a performance at the 2011 Modern Sky Folk and Poetry Festival in China, he displayed the message ‘‘Free Ai Weiwei’’ on a large screen. Soon afterward, authorities detained him for over 12 hours at the airport in Shanghai.

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Page content updated Wednesday, May 22, 2013