Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an absolute must-watch. Whether you’ve been following every move of the Chinese visual artist, activist and provocateur, or have somehow managed to miss the headlines, this documentary delivers a captivating overview. Director Alison Klayman has gained an insider’s glimpse at the man fighting to change the world one tweet and 100 million sunflower seeds at a time.
Let’s back up a few steps, and provide a bit of context. As his country’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei’s exhibitions and installations have shown everywhere from the Tate Modern in London, to Munich, Germany, to Knoxville, Tennessee. In 2011, he topped Art Review magazine’s Power 100 list, and was named GQ’s ’09 Man of the Year. Yet back home, Ai remains a public enemy. Not to average citizens, of course, who have come out in droves to support him, but to the authorities that have censored his web presence, demolished his studio and secretly detained him for months in a 10-foot by 24-foot room.
The latter is the subject of Ai’s latest installation, 81 Wooden Balls — one for each day he was held. This simple but powerful representation follows in the footsteps of his past works, such as the aforementioned seeds (each hand-painted to signify the individualism of every person in China), and 9,000 backpacks (one for every child who perished in the May 2008 earthquake). Here, the message was made explicit as the bags were arranged to spell, “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”
While he could live and work comfortably without ruffling feathers, Ai chooses instead to stand up for his beliefs. Following his work as a consultant on the stunning Beijing National Stadium (a.k.a. the “Bird’s Nest”), he made the unprecedented move of publicly denouncing the Olympics as a tool for propaganda. Messages like these are spread through his blog posts, documentaries and widely read @aiww account. Yet this dissemination dates back to Ai’s underground art books in the mid ’90s, and the notorious photo series, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.”
First-time filmmaker Klayman succeeds where other documentarians fail by gaining access to Ai every step of the way. Through interviews with the lovably wry man himself, plus footage of him interacting with his family, a litter of cats, and endless snacks, she humanizes Ai in a way that’s reminiscent of Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. Like all of us, Ai is imperfect, proved most definitively by the film’s third act surprise that he has fathered a son with a woman who is not his wife.
Never Sorry is not the most balanced appraisal, yet the film’s greatest strength is the way it presents the facts without unnecessary stylistic flourishes (other than a well-timed song from Carsick Cars). The laundry list of accomplishments and fights for human rights speak for themselves, while the ingenious mind behind them shows no signs of slowing.