‘Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly’ a Portrait of Political Prisoners

Film documents Ai’s 2014 @Large exhibit on Alcatraz

7 mins read

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly
(USA, 76 min.)
Dir. Cheryl Haines, Co-dir. Gina Leibrecht

Does any visual artist in the world right now have as big a profile as Ai Weiwei? The artist, filmmaker, activist, exile, and former “prisoner of conscience” draws international attention to human rights causes through diverse art forms. Having faced imprisonment and censorship in his native China for speaking out about its oppressive government, Ai knows the cost and value of free speech. His voice is one of the most essential and influential of this era as his art draws attention to urgent causes like the global migration crisis, censorship, and the rights of whistleblowers. The world’s esteem for Ai is equally evident in the number of films in which he serves as a central subject (see: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) or expert (see: Propaganda! The Art of Selling Lies). Few people blend art and activism as brilliantly as Ai does.

Ai’s art and convictions receive due praise in the latest documentary about life and work, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly. The film by Cheryl Haines, co-directed with Gina Leibrecht, focuses on Ai’s 2014 project @Large, which transformed Alcatraz prison into a behemoth of an exhibition devoted to fellow prisoners of conscience and political prisoners worldwide.

The sheer scope of the project is astonishing and an excellent illustration of Ai’s ability to use physical spaces as pieces of art. The freedom to move and observe is part of the exercise as onlookers discern the space they enjoy compared to the room that people like Ai and his subjects sacrifice by speaking to truth to power. The physical space of Alcatraz becomes a facet of the installation as onlookers observe a work like “Refraction,” which fashions a gigantic bird wing from Tibetan solar panels to convey how the people of Tibet are not free. By observing the wing through the bars and broken windows of Alcatraz, art aficionados recognise the limitations of freedom in their own lives.

“Many people are in prison because they want to change society,” Ai says in the film. “I have an obligation to speak on their behalf.” The project illustrates Ai’s activist art while conveying the price he continues to pay. Yours Truly follows a long line of arts documentaries that chronicle the creation of an exhibition. Haines, a gallerist and curator, is the figure who proposed the Alcatraz site to Ai, and she features prominently in the film as they create the impressive installations. The film raises provocative questions about presence and absence in political artistry since Ai was under house arrest and without a Chinese passport during production of @Large and couldn’t visit Alcatraz himself. Haines’ documentation of the installation fascinates as it goes behind the scenes to show the team that executed an artist’s vision in his absence.

Some aspects of the installation work better than others do. Most significantly, “Trace” features enlarged portraits of political prisoners from around the world. In true Ai Weiwei fashion, the team composes the portraits with LEGO—some 10,000 blocks—to evoke a sense of pixilation in the images. Pictures of political prisoners tend to be obscure low-res surveillance shots and the installation pays tribute to outspoken activists, whistleblowers, and dissidents ranging from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden.

 

Similarly, the film weaves Ai’s backstory to provide some context, most notably his father’s own sacrifices as a political dissident. Interviews with Ai, his mother, and brother reflect upon a childhood in a labour camp. The influence on Ai’s beliefs and his oeuvre is obvious. A brief interlude revisits his previous installation that named all the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, contextualises his rise as an engaged artist, and provides enough backstory about his longstanding tension with the Chinese government.

The third act of the film features interviews with some of the subjects features in the art, like whistleblower Chelsea Manning; former C.I.A intelligence officer John Kiriakou, who confirmed and denounced the USA’s use of waterboarding; and Egyptian Arab Spring activist Ahmed Maher. Even when the film brings Manning and Ai together in a hotel room, Haines generally keeps the conversation to the @Large project as Manning discusses how postcards from exhibit attendees gave her strength. There is undeniable merit to the art and its effect on the political prisoners and their families, but the brief interviews seem tacked-on. They’re a missed opportunity to further the conversation when films like Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry have already tackled the artist’s career and significance with greater breadth and depth.

The art that Yours Truly documents is provocative, inspiring, and essential. However, Haines is not a filmmaker and her limitations show. As a gallerist and curator, she excels at capturing the Alcatraz event by conveying the physical spaces of the installation, as well as illuminating the pieces to afford audiences a clear view and contextualising each piece for onlookers to appreciate. The tone is celebratory, if self-congratulatory, and rightfully so. However, Yours Truly somewhat stumbles while aspiring to take the leap from promotional material to political essay.

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is now playing at virtual theatres including Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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