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Category: 2011 IDA Documentary Awards

Sundance 2012: Ai Weiwei screening becomes a political event

January 22, 2012 |  4:18 pm

Ai Weiwei. Sundance 2012: Ai Weiwei screening becomes a political event

The Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has inspired activist gatherings around the world with his work and his statements about democracy. But on Sunday a new movie about him brought the politics of protest to a different place: a movie theater.

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival's Library Center Theatre and inspired a rare standing ovation and a general activist fervor at the Utah film gathering. Members of the audience praised the director and expressed a willingness to get involved as they nosily exited the theater.

Directed by newcomer Alison Klayman, a freelance journalist in her 20s who spent years with the artist, the movie is a hybrid talking-head/fly-on-the-wall documentary that draws a portrait of a surprisingly accessible political icon. Ai, the 54-year-old son of poet Ai Qing, has become one of China's most potent symbols of artistic dissent thanks largely to social media. He comes across here as a genial everyman, supervising a team of artists who help carry out his visions and displaying a certain amount of mirth, even as he can get deadly serious toward and about government authority.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

Klayman has an unusual amount of access to her subject. She spends time with him as he designs the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics but then disavows the structure because of the government's policy of displacement. She delves into his personal life, showing his playful relationship with a son he had with a woman who is not his wife.

And of course she shows the creative process behind, and cultural implications of, his politically inflected work: the painting of an historic urn with the Coca-Cola logo, his Tate Modern show in which millions of hand-painted sunflower seeds were scattered across a giant floor, and an installation that featured the names of victims of the massive earthquake in Sichuan province.

The film spends a great amount of time on that last piece and the circumstances surrounding it. Ai created it to protest the government's shoddy construction of schools that he and many other critics believe led to the death of thousands of children. Ai's outspokenness on the issue leads to a confrontation with police in which he is beaten in the head and given a serious brain injury.

We don't see the seemingly unprovoked attack but we hear it, and we later are shown another face-off with government authorities, who as the months go on increasingly follow and pay attention to Ai in all sorts of insidious ways. (In one semi-comical scene, an official begins videotaping a meal Ai is having with his colleagues and other protesters, prompting one of his assistants to begin photographing the government videographer.)

The movie's emotional punch comes in the final 15 minutes, when we learn that Ai has vanished, presumably whisked away by authorities as part of a larger dissident crackdown. Ai spends 81 days being interrogated at an undisclosed location, during which people around the world show their support with protests online and in the streets. "They silence him but his voice grows louder and louder," reads one stirring tweet, and other supporters take solemn photographs holding placards bearing his name. (Needless to say, the film is not likely to be screened in China.)

Klayman had already returned to her native New York to begin postproduction during that time, but she goes back to China to offer a jolting epilogue to the film. She chronicles the moment when Ai is released but has now been put under a one-year media and travel ban. His outspokenness transmutes into an unsettling silence, with the previously voluble artist telling cameramen he cannot offer any details about his incarceration or even comment about the nature of the ban.

At the post-screening question-and-answer session, Klayman explained that it was this ban that prevented him from coming to Sundance. "A year ago he would have been here," she said. Even a planned video linkup had to be scuttled because of ban-related fears.

"Things have been changing since [he was detained]. He does have to be more cautious." Klayman said. But she added that since the government hit him with a $2-million tax bill, he has grown increasingly discontented and willing to speak out a little more freely." He has seen the film, she told the audience, who was given information and exhorted to tweet about it upon leaving the theater.

In one of the film’s numerous scenes of defiance, Ai describes his motivation for his art and his statements. "If you don't publicize it, it's like it never happened," he said. There was little danger of that Sunday.


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Second for second, the most cinematic experience in Sundance

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

'Nostalgia for the Light' wins top honors at IDA Documentary Awards

December 2, 2011 | 10:30 pm



Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman's "Nostalgia for the Light" took home best feature honors Friday at the International Documentary Assn.'s 2011 Documentary Awards at the DGA Theatre in West Hollywood.

Set in northern Chile's Atacama Desert, the documentary juxtaposes scenes of astronomers in observatories scanning the galaxies, while nearby, archaeologists and elderly women dig through the sand searching for the human remains of pre-Columbian mummies, 19th century miners who labored in slave conditions and the bodies of victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's regime who were taken to the Atacama as political prisoners and dumped there.

Guzman, who lives in Paris, told The Times in an interview earlier this year that the idea for "Nostalgia" occurred to him because he had known about the mothers searching for their missing children through press accounts and the work of the U.S. documentary photographer Paula Allen. As a lifelong science-fiction buff who read Jules Verne classics as a boy, Guzman said the Atacama observatories had long "commanded my attention. They are the world's biggest machines for observing the elemental past."

The film, which won the European Film Award for documentary and played at last year's Cannes Film Festival, did not make the shortlist to be considered for the feature documentary Oscar.

Among the other winners, the IDA named Sara Nesson's "Poster Girl," about Iraqi war veteran Robynn Murray, best short, and on the television front, the best limited series honor went  to "Boomtown" on cable's Planet Green. The long-running PBS documentary showcase "POV" won the best continuing series award.

The career achievement award was presented to Les Blank, and Danfung Dennis, director of "Hell and Back Again," received the Jacqueline Donnet emerging filmmaker award. "Guanape Sur" won the David L. Wolper student documentary award; "Position Among the Stars" won the Humanitas Documentary Award; "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" took home the ABC News videosource award; and "The Last Mountain" won the Pare Lorentz award.

Best cinematography honors went to Massimo D’Anolfi for his film "Il Castello," while "Senna," director Asif Kapadia's film about race car driver Ayrton Senna, earned the best editing prize for Chris King & Gregers Sall and "Better This World" won the best music award for Paul Brill.


Oscar documentary shortlist includes 'Paradise Lost 3,' 'Project Nim'

-- Susan King

Photo: Patricio Guzman. Credit: Icarus Films/AP


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