Ethical Persuasion in Documentary Film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”


Ai WeiWei

Ai WeiWei

     A period ago, I saw a documentary film named “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which tells an inside story about a Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. The film is directed by Alison Klayman, who gained unprecedented access to Ai while working as a journalist in China.

     From the film, one can see that Ai Weiwei is portrayed as China’s most famous international artist and also most outspoken domestic critic. He is against a backdrop of strict censorship and an unresponsive legal system, and he is also brave enough to express himself and organize people through art and social media. Obviously, the filmmaker holds a positive attitude toward this artist and also employs several kinds of techniques to persuade audiences to accept her opinion. The persuasion techniques include interviews, visual and verbal materials etc, from which several ethical issues draw my attention.

     One of the most important persuasion techniques in this film is interview. In order to show that Ai Weiwei is an outspoken domestic critic, whose against-government actions are due to the dark side of government and the lack of democracy in the society while not due to Ai Weiwei’s own biases or personality, the director interviewed multiple sources, of which major ones include Ai’s friends—several Chinese famous artists, his former college classmate, several normal citizens, and American journalists and artists. Almost all of those sources comment Ai positively, regard Ai as a brave domestic critic, and praise his way of expressing himself and organizing people through art and social media. However, if we consider the justification model here, then it is easy to find that this persuasion technique is problematic in ethics and cannot be justifiable.

     Because justification is aimed at publicity, that is, “directed to reasonable persons, in order to formulate a workable test for looking at concrete moral choice.” (Bok, 1989, pp.92) Thus, justification has three levels, and the interview technique used in the film only reaches the second level, that is, the director considers opinions of people around Ai, or people who support him, while she does not consult persons of other side or all allegiances, which is the third level of justification. From Bok’s book, we know that public justification should be open and not closed to all but special interested groups of people, especially not exclude people from other side of opinions. As an audience, I could only see opinions from the same side of Ai, for example, his friends-they are all very famous artists in China, their fame and professional status may make people think that they are wise persons and thus tend to believe their opinions, but does this mean that they are sufficiently “public?” In my opinion, the answer is no. Just like Bok’s book has mentioned, in professional and powerful circles, those wise persons are most likely to support questionable scheme. Because they firmly believe in their “wisdom” and choice, as well as inherent morality of their group, the “authority” assumption would create bias and thus they cannot stand for sufficient public. Other interviewees include normal citizens, most of whom are the fans of Ai or those who have similar opinions as Ai’s. And also American journalists and artists, although they can stand for perspectives from foreign countries, yet it is also a part of foreign opinions, and the director does not include or indicate other side of opinions, such as those who holds negative attitude toward Ai. Besides, foreigners or outsiders, considering their limitation of deeply understanding the historical and cultural reasons behind a specific social context, their opinions would be influenced by the opinions of those whom they talk to. If foreigners do not have a complete and thorough investigation toward a social phenomenon, it is possible that their opinions would be biased. Thus, in my point of view, the interview technique in this film is week in persuading audiences and also not justifiable. It would also possibly lead to biases for a foreign society and may mislead audiences, especially those who first time get to know a foreign country, which are unethical.

     Another unethical persuasion technique is a series of private videos showing that one day, Ai Weiwei met the policeman who has ever hurt his head. And the policeman was wearing a pair of dark sunglass at that time and denied knowing Ai. Then, Ai came up with his cameramen and took off the police’s sunglass, and let his cameraman record the policeman’s face and then distributed this video through internet. I think the director would like to show audiences how brave Ai is to insist on his own standpoint and he is not afraid of any governmental pressure. But I am very surprised that the director even used this piece of video without putting on any hidden mark on the policeman’s face. Because, even if the policeman has really done something wrong with Ai Weiwei, his face should not be exposed to the public without his permission. This is a way of intruding a person’s privacy. Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance tells us when judging a person, we should step back from his social status or classes in order to guarantee fairness. So, from a standpoint of an ordinary person, showing his face or identity in public when he refuses to do so is absolutely unethical, any negative results brought by this public exposure would hurts the person and also his family.

     The last but not least is the name list of dead students in 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In order to memorize those students, Ai Weiwei made this name list, which records the names and ages of these students, and he even employed people to record pronunciation of each name and then put those materials on the internet. By showing the visual pictures of the name list and audio pronunciation of the names, the director would like to show audiences that Ai is an advocate of democracy and human rights. But the pictures of detailed information of dead students and audio pronunciations are another case of invasion of privacy, just consider whether every parents of those dead students are willing to expose their children’s names and information in public, and whether every parents are willing to hear their children’s names pronounced. Would it be a hurt to those families who are not willing to?

     In summary, although those persuasion techniques may add the richness of the film content, some of them are unethical and cannot be justifiable from moral reasoning.


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