MovieJay Was Fully Charmed By The Powerhouse That Is ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’

It’s about time you meet Ai Weiwei.

He’s the guy who designed Beijing’s National Stadium–more widely known as the Bird’s Nest–for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2011, Art Review named him ‘Artist of the Year’ while Time magazine listed him as the year’s 18th most influential person.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry introduces to film–at last–the rebellious Chinese superstar artist-activist in this wonderful documentary capturing the spirit of true originals who play a risky game of limbo beneath the watchful eye of an authoritarian government.

We begin in Weiwei’s home and studio, located in the rolling hills of the Caochangdi art district in northeastern Beijing. The features include a walled-entrance, high ceilings, a garden in the courtyard, and cats who’ve mastered the art of opening doors.

Oh yes, and don’t forget those security cameras courtesy of the Chinese government, trained on the artist’s entrance. Why are they there? On his twitter feed and through his own short documentaries during the Olympics, Weiwei protested the fact of his regime kicking poor folks out of Beijing in order to present their own version of the way they’d like the city to be shown. The whole idea of the stadium was to celebrate inclusion, not exclusion.

Always a friend to other artist-dissidents, Weiwei is awoken one night to the sounds of authorities banging on his door at a hotel near a protest he is attending. The footage can be heard but not seen as Weiwei records the events surrounding his beating at the hands of police. Later, we see him satirizing the regime by making an installation project of his own security camera, trained on himself.

How does he make a living? From international backers and curators in the United States and in Europe. Two years ago, he was commissioned by the Tate Modern gallery in London. Titled “Sunflower Seeds”, the work consisted of one hundred million porcelain “seeds”, each individually hand-painted by hundreds of Chinese artisans and then scattered over the Turbine Hall floor.

In more footage beyond China‘s borders, we see the younger Weiwei in New York as a student and then into adulthood, from 1981 until his return to China in 1993 to be with his ailing father. The footage shows a much thinner man, but with the same precocious air, designing conceptual art, producing sculptures, and becoming fascinated with black jack in his frequent escapades to Atlantic City.

The film does such a fine job balancing both his artistic endeavors as well as his political activism–and the way they work hand-in-hand–that it comes as a surprise to learn midway that he has a wife as well as a young child born from what appears to be an extra-marital affair. The story wisely stays away from delving too deeply into his personal affairs, playing those things as facts in his life that he and his wife deal with privately.

At its most compelling, Never Sorry shows Ai Weiwei to be the people’s tribune, much like Michael Moore is for America. I’m reminded of the old journalistic creed that goes, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Like a Moore film, the best sequences involve him taking legal action against the police brutality that came down on him earlier. He believes the whole exercise is a futile one, but he films himself and his crew going to police stations, filling out forms and generally causing himself to be a thorn in their sides. The system is no damned good, but it’s the only one he has to work with.

The other sequence involves the massive installation piece “Remembering” exhibited at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. Upon visiting the devastation after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Weiwei learned of the government’s role in suppressing data that would reveal the names of thousands of school children who perished, mostly as a result of shoddy construction in what Weiwei terms “tofu-skin schools”. Shortly thereafter, he involved himself in the collection of over 5,000 of the deceased children’s names in a memorial that stays up on his wall to this day. On the facade of the gallery in Germany were 9,000 children’s school bags spelling out one mother’s quote: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”.

The film ends on a disquieting note. While director Alison Klayman was in post-production with the film, news came of Weiwei’s disappearance. Like so many others that came before him, including his own father, it appears as though the authorities kidnapped him in the middle of the night. Supporters by the hundreds risked their lives to protest on his behalf outside his former studio that was set to be unjustly demolished.

Ai Weiwei was taken prisoner for 81 days last year, and upon his release we see footage of him being dropped off at the entrance to his house. He is gaunt and weary and reveals in rather stark terms that he can’t talk about it.

Upon the birth of the new nation of Ghana back in 1957, Martin Luther King proclaimed, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom”. For the first time in our journey alongside him in this film, we see Ai Weiwei as a victim. An attempt by his regime to suppress that very notion that makes up his core.

Klayman, formerly a staffer at NPR, does a good job of multi-tasking throughout. She successfully introduces us to a complicated, free-spirited troublemaker, giving us a taste of his early years through stock footage, through his many different artistic projects, and then finally by walking alongside the man and simply following him in his compelling day-to-day affairs. I could have watched an entire film of him checking in at police stations or defying authoritarian thugs when twitter followers and fans of his show up to a shack of a restaurant where he said he’d go one night, all of them sitting around and eating outside while authorities tap them on the shoulders, wondering how much longer they’ll be.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a very good film that puts real faces to a progressive movement and a desire for freedom in today’s China, a country that Weiwei admits has traveled a great distance in the last few decades, but still not nearly enough.


***½ (out of 4)