Unconventional Chinese artist and dissident activist Ai Weiwei is the subject of Alison Klayman’s structurally ragged but engrossing documentary, which portrays his Internet-based struggle for enhanced democracy and personal freedom in his country—a campaign that, despite its potentially deadly earnestness, has often employed positively playful means.
Eschewing a strictly chronological approach, Klayman begins by introducing Ai as a cheeky artist of international renown and an already powerful public figure—the designer of the Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium who then denounced the games as a propaganda extravaganza, and the leader of a drive to disclose the identities of young Sichuan earthquake victims whose numbers and names were being kept secret by a dictatorial government intent on concealing the truth about the rickety construction of the schools in which thousands of them died. Only later does she backtrack to reveal the story of his father, a poet who suffered during the era of the Cultural Revolution, and of Ai’s decade-long stay in New York after Mao’s death, his return to China following the abortive pro-democracy Tiananmen Square uprising, and his importance in the development of an underground movement in China that used art, much of the “performance” variety, to challenge the official party line. His adoption of blogging, Tweeting and posting fly-on-the-wall Internet documentaries reflects, as he explains, his view of the artist’s duty to demand change in the face of oppression.
Klayman is fortunate in having access to picture-maniac Ai’s archival treasury of video and stills, and uses the materials extensively to document his attempted intervention in the case of a jailed activist, the resultant police assault that left him in need of surgery, and his insistence in demanding an investigation of the incident and bringing charges against those responsible for his head injury. She also offers ample excerpts from the documentaries he made about work on the earthquake investigation and footage of his exhibitions throughout the world, like the remarkable “Sunflower Seeds” installation at the Tate—an event that suggests that in many respects Ai stands in a direct line from Warhol, using ordinary objects to extraordinary (and in this case politically charged) effect.
But Klayman also offers a lot of newly-shot footage—extensive interview excerpts with the often-puckish artist, his collaborators and even his widowed mother, domestic shots of him playing with his illegitimate son (whose birth he describes with candor), and some amusing scenes of his return to the New York delis he still relishes. (He eats a lot in the documentary, both in terms of frequency and quantity.) She’s also tracked down many of his old American acquaintances for comment, as well as fellow Chinese artists (some of whom live in exile) and journalists like Evan Osnos, the New Yorker’s resident China expert, and inserts their observations into the film as well. Klayman closes with footage of the price of such outspokenness as Ai has exhibited—the irrational destruction of his newly-built studio by the authorities—and tacks on a brief account of his recent arrest, detention and trumped-up conviction on charges of tax evasion. But she closes with a glimmer of hope in terms of the public support for his travails that has emerged, both monetary contributions and expressions of regard.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” could have come down harder on the Chinese government, which is now treated benignly in many official circles but remains a despotic regime. And it could certainly be better organized from a purely cinematic standpoint. But it still provides an ingratiating portrait of a courageous provocateur with a gift for cleverly ridiculing a dangerous regime that can strike out viciously in response, who remains too little known to the outside world—and whose art possesses a whimsical topicality that challenges China’s mindless drive to replace the past with modern “progress,” crushing much that’s traditional and precious in the process. Despite structural flaws and a rambling style, Klayman’s film is both engaging and important.