Without doubt Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist on the planet. His art is thought provoking, but his life, even more so. The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry gives us a closeup and personal view of the man, his art and the courage he has shown in speaking truth to power, a very dangerous thing to do in China. Filmmaker Alison Klayman was fortunate to be allowed access to Ai for three years, following him as he prepared for shows around the world, and as he stood up for the young victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Though he was known to the art world for a long time, it was his activist stance against the Chinese government’s silencing of the families who lost their children in shoddily built schools that pushed Ai into international consciousness. His hugely popular blog was a catalyst for others in China to question the status quo and become politically involved; it was shut down, but that did not deter him. He took to Twitter. And his fans and conspirators compiled a list of named of the dead, which challenged the official count. The images of this list and the reading of the names is very sad, but Ai took it one step farther, using the children’s discarded backpacks as an integral part of an exhibition in Germany. His ability to tie together his art and activism is what makes him such an interesting subject, and no doubt what has gotten him the world’s attention, while placing him at the top of the Chinese government’s hit list. During the filming he was arrested and detained for 81 days, and his brand new studio outside Shanghai was bulldozed.
What is impressive to me about this film is the amount of footage that the filmmakers got without the police shutting them down. Having worked in China, we were always getting in trouble for simply shooting for television, often with permits. I’d love to have seen what they went through making a documentary about a well known rabble rouser. There is footage where the police punch Ai and confrontations with other officials, and yet only one instance where they try and take the camera away.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is by no means the definitive film about Ai Weiwei, but it is a compelling look at his not so neat personal life, his thought provoking approach to larger than life art, and his basic fearlessness. It would be easy to see him as the artist du jour who is riding his fame, but he is literally putting his life on the line to fight for freedom of expression in a country where that can get you killed. And that is worth seeing and celebrating.