Thursday, August 9, 2012

Documentarily Double-Dipping

Personally, I find it rather difficult to review documentaries. I know when I have been affected, but I am still quite naive when it comes to the documentary process. I can also be very judgmental when I feel like scenes and information are pointless to the narrative of the film. Living in Toronto affords me the opportunity to see a wider ranger of films, and included in that is documentaries. I really should make better use of the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

In the past two weeks I have seen two documentaries: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and The Queen of Versailles. The films could not be more different, but at the same time, they are both culturally and topically relevant.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei; Never Sorry tells the story of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. A man in his mid-fifties, Ai Weiwei is critical of modern China. He uses sculpture and installation art to take a stand against the Chinese government. With the incredible amount of Internet censorship in China, Ai Weiwei uses Twitter to connect with his fans and fellow activists. It has been said that he is on Twitter for eight hours a day. Ai was very politically involved after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed thousands of students. He is very critical of government corruption and cover-ups after the earthquake.

The film, directed by American Alison Klayman, focuses on the period between late 2008 and early 2011. It begins with Ai Weiwei's project The Sichuan Earthquake Names Project where Ai Weiwei and more than fifty volunteers spent many laborious hours collecting names of students who were killed in the 2008 earthquake. On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, Ai posts the names of over 5000 students. Two weeks later, Chinese authorities shut down his blog (on and Ai joins Twitter.

With Twitter, Ai is able to connect with more people, inside and outside of China. We watch as Ai tries to prepare for an installation exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, but before that he is beaten up by the police in Chengdu. This plays an integral role in the film. Ai wants the police to investigate what happened to him, and he eventually pursues legal action. In April 2011 Ai Weiwei was detained by the Chinese government for nearly three months. No one knew his whereabouts, or if he was even alive.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry features interviews with Ai Weiwei, his brother and mother, and contemporaries in the art community. It is a politically stimulating film that left me full of questions. I am not very knowledgeable about the political climate in China, but I wish that the film had presented some facts alongside Ai Weiwei's liberal beliefs.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

The Queen of Versailles
The Queen of Versailles is one of the funniest and insightful documentaries that I have ever seen. It tells the story of billionaire David Siegel and his wife Jackie, who try to build the largest single-family private residence in the United States (at 90 000 square feeet), fashioned after the Chateau de Versailles in France.

David Siegel is a man in his mid-seventies. He has been been married twice before and has six grown children. He is the owner of Westgate Resorts, the largest time-share company in the United States. His third wife, Jackie, is a blonde bombshell in her forties. They live in a lavish mansion in Orlando, Florida with their seven children (all under 14) and nearly two dozen staff. The film begins with Jackie lamenting that they have outgrown the size of their current home. They start building Versailles, which will have a huge ballroom and staircase, bowling alley, and two tennis courts (one with stadium seating). The Seigels even purchased over $5 million worth of marble from China.

Meanwhile, David's time share business is thriving. They have opened the PH Watergate hotel in Las Vegas, and they are able to make between $100 and $200 million dollars annually from time shares. The Siegels are rolling in money until the economy collapses. David, who paid for the new house with his own money, finds himself in a financial crises because he used that money and put it back into the business.

Eventually the Siegels can no longer afford to continue construction on their new home. The bank tells them to put it on the market ($75 million unfinished, $100 million finished). The PH Watergate in Las Vegas also becomes a financial burden. David is no longer able to pay his creditors.

The film, directed Lauren Greenfield, focuses on the Siegel family through this crisis. Jackie, who did not grow up privileged, has no idea how to effectively curb her spending. The family is forced to layoff  almost every single staff member. The house becomes a wreck. Even with limited nanny support, Jackie is unable to care for all seven children (and her teenage niece).

The Queen of Versailles is bitingly funny, and while David and Jackie Siegel are too rich for their own good, Lauren Greenfield makes them somewhat empathetic. My only problem with documentaries is that we are always wondering about the current situation. I wonder if Jackie and David are still married (their marriage seemed doomed towards the end). At least we know that David Siegel is unhappy with the film!

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and The Queen of Versailles deal with two very different situations. Ai Weiwei is a man who is struggling to change the world to make it a better place while Jackie and David Siegel struggle because they are too wealthy. Both documentaries are insightful, but I wish that Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was made as well as The Queen of Versailles. There was more care and conviction in the Siegels' story.

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