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Ai Weiwei documentary is a portrait of the artist as activist

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Watching Alison Klayman’s fascinating new documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” all I could think about was how Ai Weiwei’s life was transformed by a disaster.

Like many of his countrymen, the Chinese artist and provocateur was stunned by the death toll from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Among the quake’s 70,000 victims were about 5,000 students, many of whom died in the collapse of poorly constructed government-built schools.

When the Chinese government refuses to release information about the student victims, Weiwei transforms himself from bystander to activist. He travels to Sichuan to interview families about the lost and missing. He papers the walls of art galleries with lists of victims’ names and ages. And through it all, he tweets and blogs constantly, using the Internet to launch a grassroots movement in China and beyond. (In a clever filmmaking twist, Weiwei’s actual tweets serve as a narrative device, commenting on the action as it unfolds.)

Ai Weiwei’s vases on display in Tokyo. Photo: Anna Kramer

As his efforts attract more notice, Weiwei pays a price for his dogged refusal to keep quiet. The documentary cameras capture his beating by police and subsequent head injury, the destruction of his art studio, and later, his disappearance and arrest. Yet Weiwei is no martyr. He remains a very human protagonist throughout: flawed, funny, charismatic, and—despite his assertions to the contrary—amazingly brave.

I wanted to see “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” because I’m a huge fan of Weiwei as an artist. During a visit to Tokyo in 2009, I happened to attend his first global exhibit, “According to What” (coincidentally also highlighted in the film). I loved the playful defiance of his work, like the thousand-year-old Chinese vases dipped in gaudy colored paint, pictured at right.

But I didn’t realize that Weiwei had so much in common with the people and organizations we work with here at Oxfam. Like them, he believes that ordinary people can actually change the world. He believes that speaking out against injustice is the right thing to do, even if it means putting yourself at risk. And he believes that natural events like earthquakes shouldn’t have to be disasters on a human scale, especially for the poor and vulnerable among us.

That’s why, more than a portrait of an artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is also a story about the power of those beliefs—and required viewing for anyone who shares them.

OxfamBuzzList is a new blog series about the movies, books, blogs, TV shows, music, and more that have Oxfam staff and supporters talking. Please leave a comment, or offer us your own contribution (400 words or less). E-mail Andrea Perera, Oxfam America’s Web Editor, at aperera@oxfamamerica.org.

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