Review: Human Rights on a Grand (and Personal) Scale in Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly

This is a guest post by Chloe Fourte.

Director, producer and art curator Cheryl Haines takes on human rights and the far-reaching powers of free expression in her documentary, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly. In a seemingly impossible task, Haines stages a bold exhibition on Alcatraz while the show’s artist, world activist and political prisoner Ai Weiwei watches from across the Pacific Ocean. Ai Wei Wei: Yours Truly is a poignant record of the dangers, bravery, and potential influence that is possible when ordinary people stand up for freedom.

Ai Weiwei Yours Truly

Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

The film begins with Ai Weiwei recently released from prison in his home country of China, as he patiently awaits the promised return of his passport. Teamed with curator Cheryl Haines, the pair are brainstorming the potential forms for a show based on human rights and free speech. The show will feature portraits of various activists from around the world imprisoned for their audacity to speak up in the face of injustices inside the infamous Alcatraz prison. Given Ai Weiwei’s current situation, the subject is a natural outgrowth. When it is revealed that Weiwei’s father, poet Ai Qing, was arrested and imprisoned in 1958 for his supposed opposition to the Chinese Nationalist Party, the significance of the show and the particular moment in Weiwei’s life, the film is transformed from a singular artist wrestling with politics into a intergenerational struggle with the powers that be.

As Weiwei recounts a childhood memory of watching his exiled father gain resolve after receiving a postcard praising one of his early poems. It is decided that the show’s visitors will get the chance to write postcards of encouragement to the featured activists, many of whom still await freedom. Various family members of the imprisoned visit the exhibition and are interviewed, exposing the emotional toll they’ve had to endure in the face of governmental injustice and the fear of having a family member at the mercy of a merciless system. It is quite a bit of emotional terrain to traverse, but therein lies the power of the film.

The film covers the progress of the show from inception to completion, but by far the most compelling element is that of the activists and their families’ reactions to the postcards they receive. What at times feels like heavy-handed attempts to elicit emotion reveal themselves to be the very real effect of genuine inspiration and personal encouragement in moments of intense despair and emotional solitude. Individuals who risked livelihood, security, and personal relationships to fight for their communities’ access to information and right to actualize liberation face uncertain futures for refusing to compromise personal conviction.

While the first half of the film is situated in Weiwei’s political struggle and familial background, the second half highlights the specific individuals featured in the exhibition’s hand-made Lego-pixelated portraits. I began the film genuinely invested in and affected by the reality faced by political prisoners, but remained suspicious of a film focusing primarily on a curator’s attempt to bring a show to fruition, however morally legitimate the motivation. All of my reservations dissipated as the second portion of the documentary dives deeper into the nightmarish reality of political imprisonment. What surprises, however, is not only Haines’s refusal to get lost in despair, but also the assured resolve embodied by those activists the film crew is able to personally visit. Though futures remained ambiguous if not completely dangerous, these individuals speak of their acts of bravery, whether releasing classified governmental information to the public or organizing and maintaining massive peaceful protests as their only possible response. Each would repeat their actions if given the opportunity, seeing the fight against tyranny as duty not choice.

It could appear as a small act. What is a postcard but a small rectangle with some writing? What power could that possibly have in the face of violently oppressive systems? It turns out that physical messages of encouragement, though humble, carry an almost mystical power to transfer the decidedly unphysical: hope.

In a moment like ours, where global systems of oppression feel as if they are gaining power, but are increasingly being met with resistance from masses of ordinary individuals, Ai Wei Wei: Yours Truly reminded me that this struggle to defend freedom is not only the job of remarkable activists and political leaders, but lies also on the collective back of our united resolve to stand for freedom for all those who exist on this planet.

My previous knowledge of Ai Weiwei was relegated to his Tate Modern show in which he filled the gallery with millions of handcrafted porcelain seeds, and so the documentary acted as a proper introduction. Though the film digs into Weiwei’s family background and political struggles, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly shifts to deal primarily with the plight of other activists bravely standing in their convictions. As Weiwei says, “Not all inmates in prison have committed crimes. Many people are in prison because they want to change society…I have an obligation to speak on their behalf.” What results is not only a behind-the-scenes portrait of an artist and the making of a large-scale show, but a fierce reminder of the power of “ordinary” bravery. Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is sure to prod even the most hardened of us out of the shell of complacency into action, even if that action is opening one’s eyes to our dangerous reality. If you can, check out the Siskel’s virtual premiere of the film.

See some examples of Ai Weiwei’s Lego-constructed portraits in this review and gallery of the 2018 exhibit at Wrightwood 659. The Alcatraz exhibit preceded the Chicago show.

Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is now screening at Siskel Film Center’s Film Center from your Sofa.

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