Chinese activist uses art to convey a message of freedom


Playing both live and virtually at the M.V. Film Center this weekend is the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly.” A 2019 film about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, “Yours Truly” depicts the connections that develop as the artist creates an extraordinary work of socially engaged art remotely, as he is under house arrest in Beijing. The film’s director, Cheryl Haines, organized in 2014 a huge exhibit at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, where the former penitentiary is now a national park.

The scope of the project, with larger-than-life Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience from around the world, was immense, and nearly a million visitors viewed the exhibition. The story behind the vast artistic undertaking is Weiwei’s weaving his own history into it. His father, a well-known poet, was imprisoned in a remote work camp in the late 1950s. Part of the value of “Ai Weiwei” is the insights the director gives of his family life as told by his mother, Geo Ying, who describes Weiwei’s life growing up in exile. A poet, his father was mistreated and detained in the 1950s. Ying describes how Weiwei was told of the 100,000 people put in detention when he was just a child. There are also interviews with his brother and other members of his family.

He and his mother and brother remember the impact a postcard expressing support had on them, and this carries over into Weiwei’s extensive “Yours Truly” exhibit, as it also consists of beautifully illustrated postcards with national birds and flowers of the other prisoners’ countries. Visitors to the exhibit were invited to write messages of hope to the imprisoned or detained activists onto the postcards. Even more inspiring, after the more than 90,000 postcards were sent to prisoners and their families, they began writing back.

The film follows the postcards around the globe, and Haines interviews a number of the activists. Included were Egypt’s Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement which marked the beginning of the end of Hosni Mubarak’s government. Also interviewed is Ebrahim Sharif al Sayed’s family. Al Sayed is the former Secretary General of the Bahraini democratic reformist party.

By the film’s end, Ai himself is finally free, seeing his own exhibit in public for the first time. He meets with former prisoner Chelsea Manning, and other activists express their wonder at all the connections Ai has made, and the strangers who sent the encouraging messages around the world.

Ultimately, “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly” is a call to action, extending the extraordinary reach of the artist’s exhibit to its viewers.

Information and tickets to “Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly,” either at the Film Center or virtually, are available at