Silverdocs Reviews: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present,” and “Portrait of Wally”

Our take on what’s playing at Silverdocs this year.

By: Washingtonian Staff

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 7:15 PM and Saturday, June 23, at 3 PM

In Ai Weiwei, 27-year-old first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman has a subject most documentarians and journalists can only dream of. The Chinese artist and activist is eccentric, chatty, an iconoclast, has a tangled personal life (three years ago he had a son with a woman who isn’t his wife), and is utterly, inexplicably charming.

In 2011, Chinese authorities arrested him, raided his studio, and held him prisoner for 81 days, during which time museums worldwide organized protests and petitions to have him freed. Ai became a global symbol of the lack of freedom in modern China, and his personal fame skyrocketed.

Klayman first starts following the artist in 2009, while he’s investigating the casualties of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and infuriating authorities by helping compile a public list of the 5,000-plus students who died thanks to shoddy “tofu” construction in the city. Ai, it immediately becomes clear, is a world-class troublemaker as well as a visionary artist. “I consider myself more of a chess player,” he tells Klayman, who displays pictures he took of himself giving the finger to locations such as Tiananmen Square and the White House.

Ai is also that rarest of beasts: an artist who understands social media. He blogs daily, takes hundreds of photographs a day, and is greatly enamored of Twitter, which he pronounces, rather sweetly, as “Tweeter.” Seemingly insulated from the Chinese government by his fame, he nevertheless admits to Klayman that he’s afraid of repercussions. “I am so fearful. That’s not fearless. I act more brave because I know the danger is really there.”

The film follows Ai to London, where he attends the opening of his groundbreaking exhibition “Sunflower Seeds” at the Tate Modern. We hear about his life as a young artist in New York and his early work before he started outsourcing much of it (in one scene, Klayman films Chinese artists crafting “Zodiac Heads,” currently on display at the Hirshhorn).

Ai himself is a compelling enough subject to fill a movie several times over, and all Klayman really has to do is let him entertain us. But her narrative is taut, and when Ai is unexpectedly arrested, seemingly as a warning to other outspoken artists, she captures the campaigns and the demands from high-profile people such as Hillary Clinton for his freedom.

She’s also there when he returns home, strangely muted, telling reporters that regrettably he can’t comment, as he’s technically on bail. The sight of such a sadly chastened Ai is hard to watch. Thankfully it isn’t long until he’s blogging again. Inspirational, curious, and optimistic in various degrees, Never Sorry gives us an insightful, weighty look at one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary art.

—SOPHIE GILBERT

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Playing Friday, June 22, at 10:15 PM and Saturday, June 23, at 10:30 AM

There’s no doubt that Marina Abramovic, often called the grandmother of performance art, is a captivating personality, as evidenced in Matthew Akers’s gripping and enchanting documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.

We meet up with Abramovic, now 63 years old, as she’s prepping for perhaps the biggest show of her career, a 2010 installation at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Known for her unusual and visceral displays of human interaction, in which she predominantly uses her own body to demonstrate pain, emotion, and the sometimes raw physical effects of daily life, Abramovic has reached a pivotal moment in these latter years of her artistic career. With the support of the art community and her myriad fans, she decides to install herself—quite literally—in a chair for 90 days, so she can come face-to-face with any number of strangers who visit her at MOMA.

It’s a massive undertaking, one that requires Abramovic to expel some demons and be irrepressibly present in the lead-up, all witnessed by the viewer during this intense and deeply moving portrait of an artist at the precipice of her swan song. As Abramovic says, performance art is is a “real” form of art, wherein the very presence of the artist serves as the medium. She “plays with the edge of the knife,” says her longtime gallerist, Sean Kelly, one of Abramovic’s earliest supporters. For Abramovic herself, this show is really about finally being acknowledged after “40 years of people thinking you are insane.”

Filmed over a ten-month period, Akers’s movie captures Abramovic’s most personal moments, from relaying her nervous energy and stress as the opening nears to listening to her tell the story of love lost with longtime companion and former collaborator Ulay as tears stream down her face. When art is this personal, this cerebrally challenging, one almost wants to roll one’s eyes at the imposed seriousness of it all, but there’s something about Abramovic that prevents the snickering and scoffing; she is truly seductive and interesting, her honesty touching and her physical stamina beyond impressive. Abramovic is surprisingly vulnerable, almost uncomfortably so, which adds a very complex juxtaposition to the cold and stark themes of her artistic performances. You can’t help but like her.

The last third of the film focuses on the MOMA installation, where we watch Abramovic sit, day after day, hour after hour, motionless, as hordes of people stream through the museum, sitting just a couple of feet from her face, staring into her eyes, some so overcome with emotion that they openly cry with the sheer joy of being so close to her. With Abramovic’s commitment to this bizarre journey, art becomes accessible—performance art’s unfamiliar rhythm becomes familiar, simply due to the fact that she is sitting right there.

All told, more than 750,000 people came through the exhibition during Abramovic’s three-month stay. If The Artist is Present accomplishes anything, perhaps it best serves to expose the complex nature of performance art, to argue that it is more than an exercise in navel-gazing narcissism, and that those wholly committed to their artistic medium are truly fascinating subjects.

—KATE BENNETT

Portrait of Wally

Playing Thursday, June 21, at 10 PM and Sunday, June 24, at 10:15 AM

Portrait of Wally is director Andrew Shea’s compelling account of a Jewish family’s struggle to recover a painting that was stolen from them by the Nazis in 1939.

In 1997, the relatives of deceased art dealer Lea Bondi were shocked to learn that Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally” was on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The intimate portrait of Schiele’s mistress had been Bondi’s prize possession—hanging on the wall of her Vienna home—until it was seized by Nazis as World War II got underway. Bondi would spend the rest of her days trying to recover the painting. But she never got it back.

After the Museum of Modern Art turned down the request of Bondi’s heirs to keep the painting in New York, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau opened a criminal investigation of the matter, touching off a crisis within the art community and a legal battle over the painting’s ownership that lasted more than a decade.

With a fast-paced narrative, Shea’s film explores the painting’s provenance, the mysterious circumstances surrounding its disappearance, and the uncomfortable questions that the controversy precipitated for art galleries around the world. Whether you’re an art enthusiast or not, the film has the drama and big moral questions to keep you engaged.

—LUKE MULLINS