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"Don't Retreat, Retweet": The Story of Ai Wei Wei, China's Leading Netizen

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 29 2012

Exhibition poster for exhibition "So sorry" of chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany

There are really two stars of the new documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"--the artist himself, and the Internet. The two are inseparable in the film, which both documents the life story of the man who has become one of China's most creative and courageous dissidents, and shows how he has maneuvered through the cracks in China's vast system of social control by using social media to reach a global and local audience.

Weiwei himself is an amazing story. His father was the poet Ai Qing, a Chinese revolutionary and romantic who was punished during Mao's Cultural Revolution and sent with his wife to a rural labor camp in 1958. Weiwei spent his first 16 years there, and then went to the Beijing Film Academy where he began his path into his life as an artist. For twelve years, he lived in the U.S., mostly in New York City, but then returned in 1993 to be with his ailing father. The film pulls together archival footage of the Maoist period, with revolutionary cadres ritually denouncing ideological renegades, and then blends in never-before-seen clips of Weiwei on the streets of New York, documenting his days Avedon-like, and showing his growing political engagement as the pro-democracy movement in China crested with the Tianamen Square protests and massacre in 1989.

But the bulk of the documentary is about a more recent period in Weiwei's life, from the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 to just after he was released from prison in June 2011, as captured by Alison Klayman, a young American filmmaker who had the good fortune to meet and befriend him during this time. (Fittingly, part of the financing for her film came via Kickstarter.) Weiwei's artistic and political activism during this period was truly extraordinary. Working with other artists and activists, he crowdsourced a list of more than 5,000 names of children killed during the earthquake, a project that was both an act of commemoration and protest at the shoddy construction practices that caused many of their deaths. Then, using Twitter and the net, he and his team made a moving audio tribute online, involving hundreds of Chinese who each read names of the dead.

"Never Sorry" shows Weiwei being beaten by police after he tried to testify on behalf of a fellow investigator of the earthquake construction scandal, and then takes the viewer on a journey with him as he has emergency brain surgery in Germany to relieve internal bleeding caused by the beating. This is followed by Weiwei's efforts to lodge a legal complaint against the policemen who beat him, and his subsequent efforts to serve Chinese authorities with a lawsuit pursuing his case. The film takes a detour to show him with his young son, born to a mistress that Weiwei doesn't quite explain or apologize for (his wife is also shown in the movie), and also highlights major exhibitions of his in Germany and London. And it culminates with the chilling 81-day period when he was imprisoned by China on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and then released on bail under stringent restrictions on his movements and speech.

Throughout the film, Weiwei is seen documenting his life and his encounters with the authorities using his camera, cell phone and Twitter account (Sina Weibo apparently is a more recent development). Several times, we see the network in action, as when some of his followers show up spontaneously to eat dinner with him at an open-air restaurant in Shanghai, and then stunningly, when hundreds come to "celebrate" the demolition of his studio in that city while he is under house arrest. Again and again Klayman punctuates an episode with a tweet from Weiwei either showing a photo he took of the event that just unfolded, or typing out his wry and rebellious comments on what just transpired. The juxtaposition of film footage and Twitter snapshots is uncanny, and I found myself wondering if it was possible that somehow the filmmaker had reversed engineered still shots from her footage into "tweets" from @aiww as more of a dramatic device than an actual reconstruction of tweets that Weiwei sent.

It probably doesn't matter either way because the ultimate effect is more important to the story than whether Weiwei took those exact photos or sent those exact tweets. That's because the technique Klayman uses solves a difficult problem many filmmakers have when it comes to illustrating the importance of the Internet to a story. Watching someone type on a screen just isn't interesting, nor is watching someone else reading what they wrote. But this method has the benefit of explaining to the less savvy viewer why the net is so important to Weiwei's life and work. Without it, he'd be sentenced to obscurity. With it, his every gesture and saying is amplified.

"Never Sorry" is in theaters now. If you are a fan of dissent, freedom, art and/or the Internet, go see it while you can, because it shows how these forces are all inextricably linked in the networked age. Whatever your political persuasion, you will be inspired by the courage of Weiwei and many other less well-known Chinese pro-democracy activists.

Update: Alison Klayman clarifies regarding the tweets shown in the film: "Almost all the tweets are real and from that exact day/moment when they are depicted. Sometimes if a tweet did not have an accompanying image, we provided a screen grab from the scene. For the section you mentioned, that final trip to Chengdu as he is going around to file his complaint at various offices (right before the fight breaks out), those were all real Twitter images he posted. The second trip to Chengdu when he testifies successfully in the police station, those tweets were also real from that moment (about how he "made a little progress today").I spent a lot of time back-searching his tweets and posted images on Twitter in order to make it as accurate as possible. I felt the authenticity of the tweets was important."

[Bonus link: See also this talk by artist An Xiao Mina, a collaborator of Weiwei's, at PDF2012, on "Internet Street Art and Social Change in China."]