It's very much a case of right place, right time for director Alison Klayman. It's her first major documentary, and she's telling a story that the world want to hear - the rise and persecution of one of the world's most important and powerful artists.
It was pretty clairvoyant of the 24-year-old American to begin shadowing the Chinese artist back in late 2008 for what was originally to be a video to accompany one of his shows. Shortly after filming started, Ai joined an investigation into the Sichuan earthquake student casualties, and eventually compiled a list of 5,385 dead children (allegedly due to cheap and unsafe 'tofu' school construction).
As a result of publishing this list - which he describes as "doing work that should be done by the government" - and attempting to testify for a fellow investigator (Tan Zuoren), Ai is beaten by the police at his hotel. Klayman captures all of this on film as it happens - at that point the height of the artist's police troubles. Of course, it was only to be the beginning; the camera looks on as the Chinese government place him under house arrest, kidnap him, destroy his studio and extort an enormous fine for alleged tax evasion. While the state would very much like Ai Weiwei to shut up and disappear, his army of fans await his every tweet.
We follow Ai as he attempts to receive acknowledgement of the police beating, which of course they deny. When asked why he bothers to go through this futile bureaucracy, he responds that it is important to jump through the government's hoops if he is to fault them. By publishing a photo of their report, he deftly turns his frustration into a call-to-arms. We see Ai as a relaxed and methodical activist, measuring out his rebellion. But it's impossible for him to always remain so impassive in the face of constant and unconcerned brush-offs by the so-called investigating authorities. When he meets his attacker again he swipes the sunglasses from the police officer’s face, demanding acknowledgement of their prior meeting. We don't see much of this rage on camera, even though so much of his art is overtly critical of the government. There's a feeling that perhaps it's something he's learned to control.
It’s not all politics though – Ai Weiwei’s art and progress as an artist gets a deserved bit of screentime too. There’s a great segment showing him overseeing the artisans creating the one hundred million hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds (2010), and subsequently walking across the installation in the Tate Modern. We also see some interviews with friends during his earlier time in New York, and see some of the work from that period; including Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) (a triptych of photos in which he does just that).
To be placed so close to a rising star of the art world during the tumultuous events of 2008-2011 must have been a gift for Klayman, but with that comes the difficulty of trying to construct a story from events that don't yet have closure, and perhaps never will. And yet, she still manages to take in his many facets within just 91 minutes – from artist to architect to activist to social media addict. It's hard to find fault in her largely invisible and unintrusive depiction of Ai Weiwei's life in interesting times.
There’s an excellent scene in which we see Ai eating dinner outside with friends at a Chengdu restaurant eating pig trotters (a local specialty). Having tweeted about his visit, many of his followers stop by to take photos, and soon the small crowd attracts the attention of the police, who ask him to eat inside. He tells them he’d like to finish his meal first, and so the police (worried that arresting him for al fresco dining might look heavy-handed) film him eating his pig trotters instead, while being closely filmed by Ai’s own videographer Zhao Zhao, who are both in turn being watched by Klayman’s camera. A rather surreal Mexican standoff, but it serves to point out how closely he is being monitored by the Chinese state, with film the public will never see.
The documentary is very much authorised by Ai Weiwei, and indeed he's one of the producers behind it. In an interview with Time last week, Klayman mentions that "he didn't ask to change a single thing" - which seems to suggest she'd be open to edits if requested. Not that this is to say that it's an unfairly biased or favourable documentary. In fact, her good standing with Ai gives her access to some remarkably intimate moments, such as him asking his young son to feed him chunks of watermelon, and unprecedented interviews with his mother on her worries for her son.
It's particularly surprising to see a fresh personal side to a man who broadcasts so much of his life on Twitter. He's constantly sending updates from his phone throughout the major incidents in the film (which we see, translated). The film even closes with one of his tweets - "never retreat, retweet".