After the Act of Killings director Joshua Oppenheimer began talking with several survivors of a killing spree in Indonesia following a coup d’état that left over a million dead in 1965 at the hands of thugs drafted by the military to weed out accused communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese, he had no idea he would become friends with one of those killers. The documentary focuses on Anwar Congo, the last of the 41 perpetrators he met during a total of eight years trying to make this film. Speaking over the phone from a hotel in New York City, Oppenheimer said they still speak. “He and I have remained in touch every three to four weeks,” he said, “and I think somehow we always will because we’ve been on such a painful, intimate, ultimately transformative journey together.”

The transformation comes about in the film on a rather surreal but brilliantly therapeutic level when Oppenheimer asks Congo and other executioners to act out the killings in brilliantly shot if hokey dramatic reenactments that cover genres from gangster films, musicals to ghost stories. The Act of Killing director Joshua OppenheimerThe director noted that the reenactments were designed to work on a higher meta-level as being symptomatic of the perpetrator’s boasting and impunity. However, something surprising happened with Congo. “Each time we would shoot a scene he would watch the scene, and he would be very disturbed by what he saw, but he would not dare to say what was wrong with the scene,” said Oppenheimer. “Basically, he would displace the guilt on something trivial like, the costumes are bad, the acting or the genre, and he would propose a new scene. So in a sense he was trying to run away from his pain the entire time, and that’s the fuel for the whole process.”

He points out that with the Act of Killing he was not seeking to make a sentimental film or a psycho-drama. “That would be obscene and wrong,” he emphasizes, adding that this all happened rather serendipitously. He says he unconsciously focused on Congo but, in hindsight, remorse underlined all his seeming boasting. No matter the argument, deflecting or escape, below it all lies a conflicted awareness of guilt. “I don’t think I met a single perpetrator over all these years that did not know that what they did was wrong,” Oppenheimer stated.


During their first meeting, Congo admits to Oppenheimer that he was often drunk or high during the killings. At first, the admission seems to highlight the “thrill” of killing, but in actually it was one of the many ways Congo found an escape from confronting the horror of his actions. “That’s right,” Oppenheimer agreed. “Anwar’s conscience is present from the very beginning.”

Congo also notes that gangster movies inspired his methods of killings, including garroting by wire. He also throws around an appreciation for Pacino and Brando.

However, don’t blame violence in movies for his behavior because Congo also notes a sense of euphoria after watching Elvis Presley musicals and stabbing people in the street. What’s up with that? Oppenheimer points out that something more sinister underlies these forms of cheap Hollywood films: numbing escapism. actofkilling_2“Some people have made the link that violent movies cause violent behavior, but Elvis Presley musicals are the most vivid example [Congo] gives: of walking out of a midnight show dancing his way across the street, intoxicated by his love of Elvis and killing happily, and Elvis musicals are not violent. They’re just stupid, and I think the real risk is escapist storytelling. How we tell stories, all of us, you, me, everybody to escape our most painful and bitter truths.”

And this is what makes the Act of Killing, which climaxes in one of the most visceral scenes of remorse one will ever see committed to film, the most disturbing horror film you might ever experience.

You can read much more of my interview with Oppenheimer and watch the film’s trailer on the website of the Miami New Times and its art and culture blog Cultist. Jump through the logo below:

cultist banner

Hans Morgenstern

The Act of Killing is in Indonesian and English with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is not rated (the violence is all staged and/or recalled as stories, but it’s more disturbing than you might be able to imagine). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at O Cinema in Miami, for which I originally wrote this interview. It’s playing across the globe now, even having distribution in Indonesia. For worldwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Update: the Act of Killing opens Sept. 6 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Sept. 15 at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

photo_05As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt (Jagten) feels like a brutal roller coaster of victimization with the audience’s sympathy clearly placed on the protagonist’s shoulders. It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

With his new film, Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, proves himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas. In a rather cruel play on dramatic irony, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt after a child fibs that he had molested her. News spreads like a virus among the inhabitants of the Danish small town. Lucas and the girl’s relationship is clearly set up so as to be apparent that Lucas is innocent, and the reason behind the child’s thoughtless lie comes from a childish sense of retribution. But only the audience is allowed to see this. The results of the lie then have a downward-spiral effect on Lucas’ job, friendships, family and social standing in the town where everyone knows everybody.

One circumstance after another piles up, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the film’s protagonist considering the amount of information shared only between the persecuted Lucas and the viewer. Horrors are committed that feel especially cruel considering the dramatic irony that fuels the Hunt. Normally I would not forgive a film that plays with dramatic irony to such a cruel, manipulative hilt,THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3 but because the Hunt offers such a harsh indictment to the quick judgments that are practically the bread-and-butter of so many news shows (think Nancy Grace in the U.S.), I feel it’s worth forgiving. It’s a situation that fuels biases on either side of the recent George Zimmerman verdict that sparked rallies across the U.S. over the weekend. Previously, it happened following the trial of another Florida character, Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter but acquitted. As much as the theme of the Hunt is timeless it also stands timely, and many could use a wake-up call like the Hunt.

Heightening the film’s drama is precision pacing and clean shooting by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. In fact, the idyllic village with its surrounding forests is beautifully shot, as the Dogme style of home video/natural light featured in the Celebration— as interesting as it was— has long outlived its relevance. Instead, in the Hunt cinematic techniques are used traditionally to seduce the viewer into the film so one might sympathize with the protagonist.

Everyone seems a threat to poor Lucas. Christensen shoots the children at their own eye-level, framing them in positions that speak to their power in affecting the story. photo_04A sense of dread permeates the interactions by the suspicious adults not long after the accusations become fodder for whispers behind Lucas’ back. It all culminates with a scene that offers an ambiguous note that should encourage discussion.

Mikkelsen, who has been gaining more and more recognition in his slowly building career, currently highlighted by his performance as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s new television series “Hannibal,” gives a strong performance. He plays fragile and desperate with shaky ease. But the real highlight is the story and how Vinterberg squeezes out all he can from frustrating dramatic irony that will aggravate some and enthrall others.

Hans Morgenstern

The Hunt runs 115 minutes, is in Danish, Polish and English with English subtitles and is rated R (it’s violent and disturbing, but young people of a certain age could have something to learn from this). It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. The Hunt opens this week in South Florida at most indie film houses. It premieres July 25 at O Cinema in Miami. Then, it appears at the following theaters on July 26 (click names for ticket info):

Miami Beach Cinematheque
Tower Theater
Cosford Cinema
Cinema Paradiso

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


I had a chance to meet the young actor Brady Corbet during this year’s Miami International Film Festival (Actor Brady Corbet praises 35mm ahead of rare screening of ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ at MIFF). We stayed in touch, which made it easy to get him to answer some questions about his new movie Simon Killera stylized thriller that relies on a meek protagonist who seems lost in a downward spiral of heartache after breaking up with a girlfriend.

The suspense relies a lot on Corbet’s subtle performance of a repressed, unstable young man who corners himself with his own lies about the world around him. Director Antonio Campos adds a languorous style that highlights the performance with some rather inventive use of camera tricks that transition several scenes. There’s also a hip soundtrack that includes a cover of Miike Snow’s “Animal” you probably never heard. Then there is a brilliantly staged scene at a disco featuring the opening of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” that captures the titular character’s fearsome instability.

I sent Corbet an email to ask for a chat. He was in Paris, so we did it via email. The resulting Q&A can be read on the blog “Cultist” from the “Miami New Times.” Jump through the logo for the blog to read it:

cultist banner

Simon Killer runs 101 minutes and is unrated (Corbet says it would have probably received an NC-17 rating should it have been submitted to the MPAA). It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 17, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this story. The film also opens in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, the same day.The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster-art-for-Caesar-Must-Die_event_mainIf you want to see how life informs acting, you have to see Caesar Must Die. Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies together since 1962. Influenced by one of the pioneers of Italian new-realism, Roberto Rossellini, the brothers come from a place where they understand that an actor’s experiences play a more important part in their performance than formal training. It should come as no surprise when the actors of the Tavianis’ latest work, a troupe gathered from inmates in the high-security Rebibbia Prison, channel Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with a potent verve that no posh, sincere actor could have achieved.

Caesar Must Die, only serves to highlight the artifice of acting through these potent performances that the filmmakers subvert in various ways throughout the movie. The film opens with the last scene of the play. The actors quiver with wide-eyed sincerity, delivering the lines of Shakespeare in Italian, using the accents from the various regions of Italy from whence they came. 027_al centro Antonio Frasca e Maurilio Giaffreda_foto di Umberto Montiroli“This is a man,” seems to be the final line of this version of the play, according to the subtitles (as opposed to Shakespeare’s “This was a man”). It’s an appropriate finale, as the scene only marks the start of the film, which moves briskly along, in a little over an hour’s time. After the standing ovation by the civilian audience and the roar of cheers from the actors in response, it seems apparent these actors went through much more than a play, and the directors know the true drama lays in the making of this production.

The film next fades to a silent, empty theater and then interior of Rebibbia Prison, as the actors, in plain clothes walk with their heads bowed down in silence as jailers work to open their solitary cell doors before the convicts step inside. The film next fades to a tight exterior shot of the windows of the prison in black and white footage, an intertitle announces “Six months earlier…” 146_al centro G.Arcuri,MontiroliSo begins the casting of the actors, where the theater director Fabio Cavalli will walk the actors through their roles. From learning their lines and feeling out their characters, the actors often break their readings with comments and questions that illuminate their parts with a depth beyond the meaning of the dialogue.

This is not a documentary, though these actors are real prisoners for crimes like murder, drug dealing and mafia activities. This is a meta-narrative about the relevance of art as communication. There are times when it feels a bit heavy-handed, such as a drama between actors when one accuses the other of speaking behind his back, while they rehearse. It slips out creatively, however, during a rehearsal of lines that seems to become improvisation before turning into a real no-holds-barred argument, but by then the film has made its point, and the great moments are the extended scenes within the confines of the prison walls as the actors inhabit their roles for some key sequences of the play. CDM_126_Giovanni Arcuri_foto di Umberto MontiroliTheir confinement looms hard and heavy over the big, resonant words of Shakespeare. After a return to the final scene in color and on stage, which becomes even more powerful on a second viewing, the film ends with Cosimo Rega, who plays the scheming Cassius, alone in his cell, uttering the line, “Since I got to know art this cell is a prison.”

The Tavianis’ film went on to win the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a major achievement for such a small film, but it does offer a statement that reaches beyond film. The recognition arrives well-deserved in acknowledging a pair of strong directors whose visionary work offers not only a statement about art, but its saving grace, even if it does arrive a little late for those doomed to live out their last days in prison.

Hans Morgenstern

Watch trailer:

Caesar Must Die is in Italian with English subtitles, runs 76 minutes and is not rated (expect a scene with harsh language, however). It opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this past Friday, March 29, and plays there from Tuesday, April 2, through Thursday, April 4. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The film may also be playing elsewhere nationwide, as dates are scheduled through the end of April. Visit the movie’s homepage via Adopt Films for all U.S. screening dates: here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Starlet poster art. Courtesy of Music Box Films.I can appreciate a lo-fi film as much as the next guy who got into cinema with Werner Herzog and the Dogma years of Lars Von Trier. But Herzog and Von Trier know how to harness the power of raw acting and subvert what may seem an aimless story into a transcendent statement. Starlet, the fourth film by “Greg the Bunny” co-creator Sean Baker, tries to do this but stumbles with characters that never have the chemistry promised by its premise and ends with a limp finale disguised as some sort of profound reveal that the film never seems to earn. In-between there are problematic detours in character behavior and the superfluous notion that unsimulated sex does something to raise the film’s story to some other level.

Dree Hemingway (the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and daughter of Mariel Hemingway) plays the film’s lead character, Jane. She’s a young woman jumping into the hardcore pornography business in Los Angeles. The title, however, may also refer to her pet Chihuahua, a male dog she named Starlet, which it may as well be all about. The film feels that aimless. It could also reference— and this is the film’s most interesting but under-explored idea— Sadie (Besedka Johnson in her first film, and it shows in a bad, distant way) Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and Jane (Dree Hemingway) in STARLET. Courtesy of Music Box Films.the elderly woman Jane tries so hard to befriend. It seems Sadie may have been a Hollywood screen siren in her heyday, based on some background characters reaction to spotting her at a coffee shop with Jane, halfway through the film. Beyond that, Sadie always maintains a distance from Jane. They never seem to bond, though Jane keeps trying to insert herself into Sadie’s life by offering her rides to Bingo games and the supermarket or just inviting herself over to Sadie’s house.

The relationship begins with the problematic premise that Jane would even care to be part of Sadie’s life after she buys a thermos off Sadie during a garage sale. It turns out to contain about $10,000 in cash, which Jane discovers while washing it out in her kitchen sink (who would have thought that much cash would barely weigh down a thermos?).

Jane (Dree Hemingway) in STARLET. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

When Jane finds the money, she goes off and starts spending it on things like a $460 manicure and a bejeweled harness for her dog. Jane then returns to Sadie’s house who tells her, “I told you there’s no refunds.” Still, Jane persists, offering her a ride at the supermarket after she pays Sadie’s waiting taxi cab driver to leave. Jane never mentions the money she found, she instead invites herself into Sadie’s house, who chastises her at every turn, when she picks up her chotskies (“Don’t touch that!”) or shares a glass of water with Starlet (“What are you doing? That’s disgusting… and you’re drinking out of it?!”).

Their relationship remains cold and awkward throughout. In her micro shorts and cut-off tops, Jane never seems to make a real effort to connect with Sadie who almost always looks at Jane with disgust. jane-dree-hemingway-and-sadie-besedka-johnson-in-starlet-courtesy-of-music-box-filmsJane’s shallow questions and comments like, “I like your garden,” never seem to penetrate Sadie. A chemistry never appears, though Jane asks questions of Sadie often. Whatever obscure motivation she might have to befriend Sadie after taking her money remains a mystery, which in turn fails to highlight their relationship, scene after aimless scene. Only when Sadie maces Jane, after she asks Sadie if she ever wins at Bingo, does the film offer something authentic between these two. Conflict is always important between characters, but the conflict must also bring them together, and this movie never does.

The acting also fails to rise to the subtle requirements these characters need for sympathy from the audience. The desperation of the director to reveal Jane’s character is never more visceral than in his decision to show her giving unsimulated head to an actor and being penetrated during her first sex performance for the camera (through some smart editing, porn star Zoe Voss plays Hemingway’s body double). However, her character never seems to change and remains as clueless as ever. The X-rated sex comes across as shocking and unnecessary. Is not the implication she works in porn enough of a reveal?

The only interesting actress in the movie turns out to be Jane’s Oxycontin-popping, pot smoking roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve), an already established porn actress. Jane (Dree Hemingway) and Melissa (Stella Maeve). Courtesy of Music Box Films.During one scene, the desperate and conniving Melissa comes roaring to life, as Maeve reveals a dynamic ability to tap into something primal during an argument between Melissa and Jane. It is as if Maeve is trying to show Hemingway how to act.

Small moments of interesting acting are not enough to save this film, however. With its slight, contrived pay off, Starlet is a long film to have to endure for all its half-assed effort. It almost has a salacious and exploitative quality toward Hemingway, which only adds to my disdain for this film. Starlet harbors the potential for something close to heartfelt, but the director only seems to grope around the edges, if only he could stop focusing on Hemingway’s legs.

Hans Morgenstern

Starlet is not rated (beyond the drug use and language, there is, of course, the unsimulated sex, so mature audiences only) and runs 103 min. It is currently playing in South Florida at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. If you are in other parts of the US, find out where its playing by visiting the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My one complaint about The Loneliest Planet:  it might seem rather long for its minimalist plot. Beyond that, the dramatic turning point key to the dynamic of the three characters at the heart of the film feels so compelling, I would urge viewers to give it a chance. Maybe the film needs to drone on before and after this moment of crisis when a young, soon-to-be-wed couple is given a taste of the Real, in order to emphasize its traumatic quality because there is nothing flashy about the moment: not in edits, not in close-up, not in musical score. This is a moment solely dependent on the actor. It happens in just a split second, and it reveals what a great actor Gael García Bernal is in a film that mostly ambles along with a casual, almost documentary cinéma vérité feel.

The incident occurs during a days-long trek through the Caucasus mountains in Georgia. Alex (Bernal) and his fiancé Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are presented as happy-go-lucky outdoor adventurers. They are content to be in a far Eastern European country where they hardly know the language. Their “hotel” is a room in a house filled with kids, and they must bathe with buckets of cold water. There is no sense of tourism in this nowhere city. The couple sits in stranded cob-webbed Mercedes buses and hang on their ceiling-mounted handle bars as if playing on a jungle gym. They are killing time until meeting up with their tour guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). He will take them on a hiking trip through the luscious, unspoiled mountain range that will last several days, but, most importantly, he will take them to a place of unshakeable psychological trauma for these westerners.

When the trio heads out into the land, the most dynamic thing about the trip is Nica’s bright red hair against an array of landscapes filled with gray rock and green grass. The characters’ mostly green outfits also blend in with the environment. If it were not for Nica’s shock of alien red hair, these scenes would feel torturous to some of the more impatient film viewers, as almost nothing of significance seems to happen for almost an hour. Adding some dynamism to the scenes is the director’s interjection of distant shots. Julia Loktev presents these with a ponderous, alien music of a churning bowed instrument, reverberating and full of luscious echo. The actors are so distant in these shots it seems hard to tell who is who. What matters is the land and the feel of permanence captured in these long shots where the characters practically walk from one end of the frame to another to a music that seems to capture both the film’s entrancing minimalism and the perpetuation of the land.

The characters mumble things to each other and are often caught in mid conversation, clashing cultures with their amiable tour guide. Nothing said matters as much as the moment that proves traumatic to this couple’s relationship, and then, when that moment happens, it marks something beyond words. The effect on the couple seems irrevocable, though who knows how it will end for them. It may be a taste of how they will grow apart or it could end up bringing them closer together. Playtime and adventures could very well be over for them, but then the film ends as abruptly as all its scenes seem to have begun.

Loktev seems to say people move on with their traumas forever, but also in their brief place in time on this perpetual earth, while the landscape groans on. The scenes of the land are always gorgeous, some would say indulgent in their length. When it disappears into the night, during meandering conversations and songs around the campfire, the film might feel even longer. I would agree that the film would lose nothing with some trimming. The point will still be easy to understand, but, at the same time, the film’s ingenious dramatic arc is worth seeing for its minimalist brilliance.

The Loneliest Planet marks Loktev’s return to the big screen after six years of silence and lots of buzz about her debut, Day Night Day Night, a film following a young girl with a bag of explosives in Manhattan. It clearly presents Loktev as no fluke, and a director with an uncompromising vision. She wants her message to transcend the limits of the medium, as she captures the relevance of what is missing as much as what is obvious, for it is in the places that are missing where the sublime experience or the traumatic moments lie in wait to manifest as mere symptoms of perpetual trauma until we return to the land.

Hans Morgenstern

The Loneliest Planet is not rated (but has adult language and casual full frontal nudity), is in English and Spanish and Georgian with English subtitles and runs 115 min. It is currently playing exclusively at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in South Florida, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. If you are in other parts of the US, find out where its playing by entering your zip code on the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Art is at its most vital when it is harnessed to call attention to an injustice … and maybe overthrow an oppressive government. Art has been part of revolutions in the past. Look at the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The people would end up electing one of the revolution’s leaders, playwright Václav Havel, as the country’s president. You wouldn’t know it by the popular fluff that passes for art in contemporary America (I personally believe a lot of it is responsible for numbing the masses into passive “sheeple”), but art has an amazing power that still matters to this day. Take the case of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese conceptual artist and documentary filmmaker who would so upset Chinese government officials, he would wind up jailed for 81 days without due process, cut off from even communicating with his family.

Taking her interning experience from working on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Alison Klayman went to China to film Ai at work and at an amazing turning point in his life as an artist. Shot from 2008 – 2010, the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry points out Ai did not come from the government’s Central Academy of Fine Arts , yet he designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium that was the center of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. For an “unofficial” artist in that autocratic regime to have such validity makes for an amazing statement. Before that, his work would even appear in national exhibitions alongside other Chinese artists that were basically the product of a government-controlled education system. When asked by an interviewer for his party affiliation Ai replies, “None. I’m an independent artist,” which probably explains why police not only follow him and record him on video but also intimidate him. The government has even installed 15 surveillance cameras around is home/studio in Beijing.

But, as the film chronicles, Ai has found freedom in his independent way of thinking. It is his thinking that allowed him to see through the twisted control Chinese officials have over their people, a revelation that seemed to come to Ai during his role designing the Bird’s Nest. Residents were ordered to smile at visitors to the Olympics and even forced out of their homes to make way for the games. This did not sit well with Ai and he spoke out. Here is that video:

A fellow artist tells the documentarian: “Weiwei has a hooligan style, like the Chinese government. So he knows how to deal with other hooligans.”

Like a good journalist, Klayman knows to keep out of the way of her subject and never inserts herself in the film, showing this figure the best kind of respect. Klayman also spends little time with talking heads. She presents these years as a kinetic action movie that happens to feature an artist as its hero, and art as his weapon. Her camera simply observes the artist as he assimilates activism into his aesthetic.

Interspersed with her interviews and moments of Ai’s action, whether directing his next project or Tweeting his every move (more for his own protection than promotional reasons), outside Western journalists come in and ask Ai questions. Ai fans from China show up after he Tweets what restaurant he is headed to, and they dine nearby in silent solidarity as police badger him, asking when he will be done eating.

Klayman weaves in footage from Ai’s own documentary works, including one illustrating his efforts to chronicle the identities of victims who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. He joined a team of volunteers seeking to document every fatality in that quake, estimated at 70,000, something the government preferred to keep secret. Of those victims, over 5,000 were children who died in schools built in such a shoddy manner activists use the term “tofu” to describe their construction. Through such horror Ai creates spare but moving pieces of art that are both grand and minimal.

Though Ai seems to taunt the limits of his “rights,” he recognizes the danger of confronting and testing the government. He thinks of it as a means of survival. “I act brave because I know the danger is really there,” he says. “If I don’t act, the danger becomes stronger.” He does speak English, as he spent more than 10 years in New York City, starting in the early eighties. He immersed himself in the art scene and the place definitely seemed to have a positive influence on his creativity. Ironically, the Chinese government was partly responsible for his trip, as it sought to loosen restrictions through cultural exchange programs, allowing Ai to travel and settle in there for a spell.

As much as his “hooligan” style of expression has become a manner of survival for him personally, he also believes nothing will change if he does not do what he does. He understands his role in stirring up some of the Chinese. The film sets this up beautifully at the beginning through a metaphor via Ai’s cats. He says he has 40 running around his studio, yet only one of them knows how to open doors. He says, had he not ever met this cat who can open doors, he wouldn’t know cats could have the power to open them. There is a human drama in the film, too. The birth of a son makes him reevaluate the risks he takes, and when he is finally released from jail, he seems shaken, and you can feel the energy of his creativity has been deflated.

Ai has no delusions of his efforts. He says he believes it will take several generations for China to see a fair change. The key is to keep the voices alive, to never be sorry. At an exhibit at the Tate Modern simply titled “Sunflower Seeds” he had 100 million had-painted porcelain sunflower seeds shipped in and spread across a gallery floor.

To him, he said, each seed represented an individual thought. He steps out to walk on them in front of a camera. The scene unravels from a distance, from another camera that seems to catch the action from the ground, highlighting other sunflower seeds that are not touched, cushioned by distance and the masses of seeds in the same space. It’s a highly conceptual work that brilliantly emphasizes his thinking of the futility of a government that thinks it can control the entire population by crushing the voices of a certain few. The piece could have easily been titled “100 million thoughts,” but that would have been too subversive.

Never Sorry is a strong documentary because Ai is such a strong figure with powerful, resonant ideas and a talent to pull off concepts vibrant with shock waves that wake up the audience. He is the activist who puts the “act” in activism with none of the ego, in effect inciting both those who also want to act and those who fear action. The film’s director clearly understands this and does the best thing she can do by putting her journalist soul to work to record and stay out of the way.

Curious where Ai is now? Check out this news piece by ABC’s “Nightline.

Hans Morgenstern

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Rated R, runs 91 min. and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles. It opens in my area, South Florida, this Friday, Aug. 17, at many indie theaters. Here they are (the Miami Beach Cinematheque held a preview screening for the purposes of this review):

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL
O Cinema – Miami, FL

Cosford Cinema – Coral Gables, FL
Shadowood 16 – Boca Raton, FL
Living Room Cinema 4 – Boca Raton, FL
Delray Beach 18 – Delray Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned throughout the year, including screenings in Canada and the UK. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)