Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly directed by Cheryl Haines tells the story of Ai Weiwei’s father receiving an anonymous postcard while exiled as a dissident poet in the 1950s, and how this one small act of humanity had a profoundly moving and transformational impact on both father and son. In the film, Ai Weiwei reveals candid details about his childhood, while his mother and brother recall years of privation on the edge of the Gobi Desert during her first ever on-camera interview about Ai Weiwei’s childhood.
The years in the Gobi Desert, along with his 2011 detention, became the inspiration for his revolutionary exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, a monumental presentation of new artworks addressing the struggle for fundamental human rights. The exhibition was organised in 2014 by the film’s director and one of the USA’s most important voices in contemporary art, Cheryl Haines.
Following Ai Weiwei’s detention by Chinese authorities, the outspoken artist and activist, though still prevented from traveling abroad, transformed America’s most notorious former prison into a powerful expression of socially engaged art without ever having set foot on Alcatraz Island. The @Large exhibition featured portraits made from LEGO bricks of prisoners of conscience from around the world. Throughout the film, we discover how personal these issues of injustice and incarceration are for Ai Weiwei and the extent to which he wove his family’s experiences into the exhibition.
For the final artwork of the @Large exhibition, inspired by his father, Ai Weiwei invited visitors to write messages of hope to the imprisoned activists featured in the LEGO portraits using postcards imprinted with the national birds and flowers of the countries where the prisoners were being held. The project was named Yours Truly and by the time the exhibition ended, over 90,000 postcards had been sent across the globe. Then something even more astonishing happened: prisoners and their families began writing back.
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Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly follows these postcards around the globe from Alcatraz Island to Bahrain, Washington, D.C. to Cairo and beyond, as former prisoners of conscience and the families of those still detained describe their impossible choices and the comfort they found in messages from people they would never meet.
Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly tells the stories of several former prisoners of conscience featured in @Large who stood up for their beliefs and, by doing so, inspired others to advocate for social change. These resilient and relatable individuals include John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who was imprisoned for exposing the use of torture by U.S. intelligence officers; Ahmed Maher, an activist and co-founder of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, which ultimately overthrew the government; and the family of Ebrahim Sharif Al Sayed, the former Secretary General of the Bahraini democratic reformist party. Interviews with human rights leaders underscore for viewers how small acts can lead to significant change.
By the film’s end, Ai Weiwei himself is finally free, traveling to Washington, D.C., to see a portion of the exhibition that was on view there. He meets with former prisoner of conscience Chelsea Manning, while others who have been released discuss their incarceration and the impact of receiving postcards, reminding them that they had not been forgotten.
Ultimately, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is a call to action, extending the incredible reach of Ai Weiwei’s art by asking us to take the issue of global human rights to heart and act accordingly.
Director Cheryl Haines: “During the past decade, Weiwei and I have become friends. In 2011, authorities detained the artist for his public outcries against the Chinese government’s disregard for human rights. I travelled to Beijing shortly after his release to offer support. Weiwei was weary, and described the immense sense of solitude he felt during his 81 days of confinement. It was an experience that would deeply inform his artistic practice. He asked me to find a platform that would bring his work to a far broader audience. In that instant, an idea took flight. I answered with a question: “What if I brought you a prison?”
And so we began working on @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, a monumental exhibition of new artworks addressing the struggle for fundamental human rights. From the outset, Ai Weiwei hoped the exhibition could include a call to action. This desire took form in Yours Truly, a project that would invite visitors to reach out to prisoners of conscience from around the world by sending them postcards. It was an effort to abate the sense of isolation that the artist himself understood so profoundly. At that time, though Weiwei was unable to travel beyond China due to restrictions imposed by his government, he was still envisioning creative new ways to connect and mobilise others on a global scale.
In order to bring Ai Weiwei’s call to action to new audiences, I began working on the feature documentary film Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly. While the exhibition @Large reached nearly 900,000 visitors, as a first-time director, I was energised by the fact that a film could reach so many more people worldwide via theatres, film festivals, and streaming networks. Ultimately, I hope this project will encourage audiences to consider how they might contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights, and how a simple act can make a difference in someone’s life.”