NEW YORK – First Run Features announced Thursday that the documentary Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly will have virtual theatrical runs across the U.S. and Canada beginning Wednesday, July 8.
Directed by Cheryl Haines and co-directed by Gina Leibrecht, Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly begins with the story of how Weiwei’s father received an anonymous postcard while in exile 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, Weiwei elaborates on this meaningful event, revealing candid details about his childhood, including years of privation on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
The years in the Gobi, along with Weiwei’s 2011 detention by Chinese authorities, 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 organized in 2014 by Cheryl Haines, the film’s director and one of the most important voices in contemporary art in the U.S.
Following his detention, the outspoken artist and activist (though still prevented from traveling abroad) transformed Alcatraz, America’s most notorious prison, into a powerful expression of socially engaged art without ever having set foot on the island. The “@Large” exhibition featured portraits made from LEGO bricks of prisoners of conscience from around the world. Throughout the film, viewers 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 piece of the exhibition, Weiwei, inspired by his father’s story, invited visitors to write messages of hope to imprisoned activists 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.
Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly follows these postcards around the globe, from Alcatraz to Bahrain, Washington D.C., Cairo and beyond, as former prisoners of conscience and the families of those still detained, reveal the comfort they found in messages from people they would never meet.
Ai Weiwei is among the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists and an outspoken critic of injustice, both in China and abroad. An ardent human rights activist, Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities on April 3, 2011, and held incommunicado for eighty-one days. For over four years following his release, he was prohibited from traveling abroad and subjected to ongoing government surveillance. Having relocated to Berlin, Ai continues to extend his practice across multiple disciplines, using exhibitions and social media to communicate with a global public. A vocal critic of the world’s response to refugees, he has made two documentary films on the subject: Human Flow (2017) which addresses the global refugee crisis, and The Rest (2019) which focuses on the plight of individual refugees living stateless in Europe. His most recent film is Vivos (2020), about a convoy of students from a rural teachers’ college in Mexico that was ‘disappeared’ in the drug cartel-afflicted Guerrero state.
Praise for Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly:
“One of the great films of the year! A near-perfect look at Weiwei’s art installation that took place on Alcatraz Island. Truly magical…a must-see!”
– Steve Kopian, Unseen films
“Powerful! A moving cinematic experience and so wide-ranging a project that it is likely to appeal even to those who might not think they are interested in the famed artist.”
– Barbara Pollack, ArtNews
“Inspiring! Highlights the power of the public to make a change in their societies. Seek out this great documentary for its poignant and very relevant message of persevering in your struggle no matter the cost.”
– FilmNews UK
“Top 10 Docs from DOC NYC 2019! Beautifully shot … Reveals how people of conscience can make a true difference in this world.”
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Film Festival Today
“A very absorbing and valuable documentary that movingly puts Ai’s work into personal context.”
– Peter Bradshaw, The Guardia
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 traveled 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 mobilize 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 energized by the fact that a film could reach so many more people worldwide via theaters, 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.”