Kevin Macdonald’s stunning new documentary, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” takes audiences on an explosive journey (literally) through the work and life of world renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Having had its World Premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and opening for a one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles and New York as well as streaming on Netflix beginning October 14, the film hopes to catch the eye of Oscar voters. And frankly it stands a great chance of being nominated for Best Documentary, with its astute coverage of the artist, his groundbreaking work, his family, including his 100-year-old grandmother, and Mao’s China.

Cai Guo-Qiang’s gunpowder paintings and fireworks

Although not a household name for most Americans, Cai’s work is well known on the world stage. The film documents the artist’s many works as well as shows Cai’s work process. There are his gunpowder works on paper (drawing and igniting gunpowder enveloped between paper), and archival documentation of events like his 1993 work to extend the Great Wall of China with a gunpowder fuse (“Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10000 Meters”). There are shots from the colorful, perfectly choreographed streams of explosions for “The Ninth Wave” in Shanghai, as well as explosions in the deserts of Doha (“Triangle”). But the most widely seen and known are Cai’s masterful and dazzling opening and closing fireworks at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Filmmakers have complete access to Cai Guo-Qiang

Producer Wendi Murdoch has been a collector of Cai’s work for years and exclaims in the film’s press notes, that “What [Cai] creates is a special bridge between Eastern and Western art.” Her goal was to create a documentary where viewers would experience Cai’s majestic work.

After gaining Cai and his family’s approval, she reached out to producers Hugo Shong, Bennett Miller, and actor-producer Fisher Stevens who had won an Academy Award for his documentary, “The Cove.”

In thinking of directors, the producers liked the idea of Kevin Macdonald who had directed both documentaries (“One Day in September”) and narrative films (“The Last King of Scotland”).

Although intrigued, Macdonald was not familiar with the artist, nor had he ever been to China. Cai told the director that in order to truly understand his work, Macdonald must be familiar with China. An enthusiastic Macdonald flew with Cai to China the very next day. Accordingly, the filmmakers were granted full access to the great artist.

The ‘Sky Ladder’ Project

The documentary nicely lays out the background of Cai and his family, from his childhood in China under Chairman Mao to his relationship with his ailing father and beloved 100-year-old grandmother. In addition to the artist’s achievements, it also depicts the often prickly, political experiences with launching large-scale artworks, like the fireworks of the Beijing Olympics in an environmentally safe manner.

But it’s Cai’s 20-year dream of the launching the “Sky Ladder,” a 1,650-foot ladder to the Heavens (or a Helium balloon) that will be ignited to look like a burning ladder in the sky. It will be Cai’s fourth attempt to launch the project, this time in his hometown of Quanzhou City. It’s a terrific, emotional bookmark for the documentary.

And as to whether he succeeds or fails, you’ll just have to watch “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” which opens October 14 at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 and also streams on Netflix. You won’t be sorry.

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