The opening scene of the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shows a bearded, sturdy Chinese man marveling at what his cats get up to, particularly the one that can open doors. His gentleness belies the tenacity of the warrior to whom the viewer will soon be introduced.
The film is a portrait of Ai Weiwei, perhaps China's best-known artist abroad and a notoriously outspoken critic of his government's corruption and abuses of human rights. It also displays a vibrant community of artists and activists who fight tirelessly for change, showing how Ai and others continue to show courage and resilience despite the inevitable consequences. The guiding impulse of Never Sorry is a quest for freedom of expression in a country that tolerates little of it.
The force behind the film – screened last week at Miami Law – is Alison Klayman, who graduated from Brown University in 2006 with a degree in history and embarked on what was supposed to be a five-month trip to China, Tibet and Taiwan. At the beginning, she spoke not a scintilla of Chinese, but five months turned into four years while she learned Mandarin in Beijing. She survived on a series of odd jobs – she was an English coach on the set of a Jackie Chan movie and, as a journalist, covered basketball games for the official website of the 2008 Olympics. A random act that same year would bring her into Ai's world: A friend who was curating a gallery show of the artist's photography asked Klayman to make a video for the exhibit about Ai and the curating process.
"My first few weeks of filming were enough to convince me that he was a charismatic and fascinating character," Klayman said in an interview on PBS in connection with the premiere of her film on the program Independent Lens. "I wanted to know more about who Ai Weiwei really was, what motivates his art and activism, and what would happen to him."
The film was screened in the law school at the suggestion of Carlos de la Cruz, a Miami Law alumnus and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Miami, and his wife, Rosa. The couple are collectors of contemporary art and had hosted an appearance by Klayman at their exhibition space on a previous occasion. After the screening at Miami Law, Klayman took part in a panel discussion moderated by Dean Patricia D. White. The others on the panel were Carrie Bettinger-Lopez, Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of Miami Law's Human Rights Clinic; James W. Nickel, Professor of Philosophy and Law; and Joseph B. Treaster, a former correspondent for The New York Times and the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication in UM's School of Communication.
Professor Bettinger-Lopez observed that one of the defining acts in Ai's activism was his exposure of the Chinese government's cover-up of the number of children killed in the devastating Sichuan province earthquake of May 2008. "The role of internal dissidents provide guidance to the international community," she said.
"Part of what makes this guy interesting is that he is a really good artist and not just a dissident," said Professor Nickel. Then, alluding to a signature image in Ai's photography, he added, "Him giving the finger to Tiananmen Square, what does that say? Don't be too reverent in terms of the government."
"Yes, to question everything," Klayman added. "Freedom of expression is not just what happens to you. His experience is pretty great but there is a path he could have taken that would have made him fabulously wealthy."
During a question-and-answer session, students in the audience connected Ai's experience to current events in the Arab states, and a student from mainland China said that for many Chinese, human rights ranks far behind the attainment of material things in terms of priorities.
"China is not one thing – it's a diverse group," Klayman countered. "You can't say that young people only care about a house and car ... The (Communist) Party thinks that things will keep the people happy, but it isn't going to stay that way forever."
Klayman suggested that when a sufficient number people in China understand the need for human rights, their concern for material possessions may lessen in importance. Addressing the Chinese students in the room, she said it was "people like you, studying abroad, who will bring the message back."