07/27/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry -- a Documentary at the Intersection of Art and Politics


As America stood on the threshold of entering World War II, TIME and Life magazine publisher, Henry Luce, called on the country to create the "American Century." He urged Americans to "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." He got his wish as the country plunged into war and emerged with the energy and resources to become the prevailing world power in the post-war era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union some felt that preeminence would never be challenged again. The short-lived, "end of history," as predicted by Francis Fukuyama, in 1992, has turned out to have been a mere respite as the pent up growth of China and India sprang into overdrive along with the rest of the countries in the so-called "less developed" world that are also beginning to rev up their consumption engines.

America's century ended without offering us a lease renewal and now the only bet one can safely make about who's next is, will it be China or India who claims the 21st as their century? An argument could be made for a dark horse contender among the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but the conventional wisdom, with some handicapping, leans toward an emergent China holding sway as its bursting population, guided by a central authority, outmaneuvers the Western world's democracies that are no longer able to effectively be governed because of political paralysis. This gridlock is most pronounced in the United States but we're also seeing its impact in Western Europe as it lurches from the brink of financial crisis nearly on a daily basis, only to be rescued by one creaky, half-measure, compromise after another.

But will it be China's century after all? China's phenomenal growth, over 11 percent annually in the last five years, while the United States turned in an anemic 2 percent annual average makes one believe that the country's economic balloon will keep rising. Yet some still question whether China's sclerotic Central Committee will continue to deliver the goods. One of the main sticking points for the naysayers is what's called, "the democracy deficit."

For years, we in the West were taught to envision the only alternative to our corporate capitalist system as a version of George Orwell's harrowing, dystopian novel, 1984. The Soviet Union, East Germany, Romania and that last holdout, North Korea, gave the Orwell state control model a good run. China after Mao saw a different model, Huxley's Brave New World. It's one we'd long ignored as a serious possibility. Most of us had to read Aldous Huxley in high school but never seriously considered the possibility that a totalitarian state would somehow use plentiful consumer goods, mass entertainment, sporting spectacles and the police to maintain control while enriching a small cadre of rulers. Huxley's model for the consumption state was modeled on automaker Henry Ford who became a God in Huxley's Brave New World where dates are calculated as being in the year of "our Ford."

China's model for growth has embraced the automobile more rapidly than anything ole Henry ever envisioned. What was once the home of pedestrians and bicycles was transformed into the largest automobile market in the world in about 20 years. From a handful of cars in the 1990s, it's expected to grow to over 200 million by 2020.

All this growth has generated great wealth and given a potentially restive population a sense of purpose and hope for a prosperous future. But there are signs of trouble, an aging population, an opaque judiciary and arbitrary police system as well as a cumbersome bureaucratic process that strangles innovation and more. All of which could possibly be worked out except for the fact that the ruling clique doesn't cotton to dissent or anyone having wide ranging discussion about any of the perplexing problems that one would expect to see in any country experiencing the unprecedented transformation that has occurred in China. This is what gives China Century handicappers hope that their bets on other contenders will pay off.

And this is what makes the new documentary about dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei (I, way way) relevant. The film by first timer, Alison Klayman, a journalist who says she wasn't important enough for Chinese officials to be concerned with during the two years she spent capturing the tumultuous life of Ai Wei Wei, takes us into the heart of the problem that may doom China's rise and continued growth.

We first meet Wei Wei when the Bird's Nest stadium he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics serves as the centerpiece of what China's hopes will be its international coming out party. The world tuned in to watch this once mostly rural and impoverished nation show off its gleaming new buildings and wide roads. The spectacle was spectacular but underneath the glimmering red banners were stories that the artist couldn't ignore.

His was a life of privilege. China's most famous artist, and someone who commanded respect from galleries and collectors in the West, had the backing of his government who helped him build a massive studio complex in Shanghai. But, as we all know, artists are a difficult bunch to control. Wei Wei kept his artist cred by likening the stage managed Olympics to propaganda, shooting photographs of Tiananmen Square that featured his upraised middle finger framed in the center and calling attention to the death of 5,000 school children in Sichuan who were killed when their poorly built schools collapsed. This didn't endear him to the authorities but what really got under their skin was his ability to turn his artistic outrage into an Internet following on Twitter and through his blog. Within a short time millions of people in China were following his tweets and blog posts.

"State control isn't absolute, you have to rise to the level of 'person of interest,'" explained Klayman.

Becoming a person of interest can be harrowing. The government bulldozes the studio it built for him, the police beat him and Wei Wei is spirited away into a secret government detention facility. He emerges from this nether world after 80 some days of torture and interrogation a clearly shaken but not broken artist who TIME magazine puts into contention as its Person of the Year for 2011.

The desire to shut down dissent and failures to rein in the abuses of the police and the courts are factors that keep China from attaining the stature it so desperately desires. Hosting a grandiose international sporting event and erecting a futuristic sports stadium is no substitute for building strong, resilient and open institutions that embrace the storms of vigorous criticism and adapt in order to grow. Crushing dissent and hoping problems will disappear like the dissidents you condemn to your gulags will earn your detractors Nobel Prizes and places on the cover of TIME magazine, but keep a country from ever being a serious contender for the "Century," crown.

Klayman does a masterful job in this beautifully shot film capturing the dramatic struggle of one artist to make sense of the world and make a difference through his art. See this film; you won't be sorry.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, July 26.

Check for availability in your area: IFC Films -- AI Wei Wei Screenings

Running time: 91 minutes
Rated R