The story of the film Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly begins with the remarkable exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, organized in 2014 by director Cheryl Haines, founder of San Francisco’s FOR-SITE Foundation.
Following Ai Weiwei’s detention at the hands of the Chinese authorities, the outspoken artist and activist transformed the former island penitentiary of Alcatraz into an artistic platform. The resulting exhibition engaged nearly 900,000 visitors in a conversation about the plight of prisoners of conscience around the world.
Trace was one of the eight new artworks that comprised the @Large exhibition. Made entirely from LEGO bricks, the work depicts the faces and names of 176 brave individuals who were incarcerated or exiled due to their beliefs, affiliations, and nonviolent expressions of dissent. The work’s companion piece, Yours Truly, invited visitors to compose messages of hope to many of the prisoners seen in Trace.
Visitors were galvanized by the possibility that their voices might have an impact. By the time the exhibition ended, over 90,000 postcards had been sent. Then something even more astonishing began to happen.
The FOR-SITE Foundation started to hear back from the prisoners and their families. Some of the messages from Alcatraz were getting through, and people had been moved—even sustained—by the public’s outpouring of concern for their welfare and causes.
The film Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly follows these postcards around the globe—from Alcatraz Island to Beijing, Washington, D.C., and Cairo—as director Cheryl Haines meets with former prisoners of conscience and their families to discuss their impossible choices and the comfort they found in messages sent by people they would never meet. The film also takes a deep dive into Ai Weiwei’s inspiration for the postcard project. Interviews with the artist, his mother, and lifelong friends uncover the touching story of a childhood spent in exile and a postcard that found its way to the middle of nowhere. Ultimately, the film Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly is a call to action, extending the incredible reach of Ai Weiwei’s postcards by asking viewers to take the issue of global human rights personally.