When first hearing about the documentary showcasing the life of the international artist Ai Weiwei, the only thing that came to mind was sunflower seeds. That’s because he had an exhibit in the TATE Modern located in London in 2010 with over 100 million hand painted porcelain seeds. Small porcelain beads, essentially, that have been hand painted by himself and his large team of helpers to look identical to sunflower seeds. The exhibit lay on the floor of the hall in London and Weiwei encouraged patrons to walk on them, sit on them, touch them, just don’t steal them. It was quite an amazing feat, and what’s better is that it had a powerful message, as does all his work.
The documentary follows Ai as he works on different pieces and also as an activist for the human rights of citizens of Beijing. He is outspoken, uncensored, expressive and caring for the people of his country. Through the documentary, it becomes fatally clear that Ai would give his life for the freedoms of his country. In case you are unaware, Beijing is a communist state and therefore can imprison you for publishing something against the government on your online blog.
Throughout the film, Ai organizes a small army of sorts that all want to help him make a difference. Sometimes a team of people would help him investigate the deaths of thousands of children from an unfortunate earthquake. They discovered that because of the shoddy materials the schools were made of, many more children died that didn’t have to. He also worked with people to try and free others like him from being imprisoned. The running plot through the film is when he attempts to testify at a hearing of another activist in order to keep him from going to prison and the police force of that town barricade him in his hotel room and beat him in the skull so badly he needs surgery. It is at this point that you realize you are watching something real, something earth-shaking. It becomes immediately clear that this is not a film for art nerds, it’s a film for everyone. Anyone who ever valued their own freedom or thought others were attempting to take it away needs to watch this film. As an American, it is eye-opening to see just how free we are.
He has been compared to Beijing’s Andy Warhol, but I think he’s closer to today’s artist Banksy. Although Ai is not in hiding, like Banksy. In fact, he points out the many security cameras that have been put up by the state to watch his every move. That is part of the reason he takes to Twitter to get his message out. Here in the states we complain about the media coverage being so biased and blatantly ignoring the real stories out there for fear of stock loss. But in Beijing, Ai was working on posting the names of every child that was killed in the tragic earthquake because the government wanted to keep the tally of deaths secret. Once he did post on line, a few hours later, his site was taken offline by the government. He had no say in the matter at all. So, going on Twitter was a way to bypass any Chinese laws and use an international platform for his voice to be heard.
As much as this film covers, which is a lot, I feel that one of the most important freedoms that we take for granted everyday is the largest triumph in this film. Being able to have freedom of speech online to speak to others about the truths going on in his country is a huge leap forward for the people of communist China. Ai documents his life from the modern art exhibits he opens around the world to photos of the cops beating him in his hotel room to the recovery in the hospital. The loudest message to come out the film, for me, was how important Twitter has become in this day and age. Anyone in the world that can get access to a phone with internet can voice their opinion and document real news in real time. It has often been proven as a much more reliable and much faster source for news around the world. Where we used to sit down and watch the five o’clock news and thought it was “breaking” is now just lame and out of date.
The hopes that come from this film are that as social media grows, we do not become more closed off and isolated from each other, but rather, use this form to embrace each other worldwide. Social media tools like Twitter will hopefully help to bring down corrupt governments and free citizens all over the world of rulers attempting to dominate with an outdated idea. Seek out this film, it is eye-opening and very humbling.
I give Ai Weiwei 4 “neolithic pots” out of 5