On the specific, micro level, the fascinating documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry serves as a fine and beautifully made example of a “portrait of the artist”–style film, a genre that can easily devolve into public relations–like fluff. But on a larger, more macro level, Alison Klayman’s project illustrates the power of a good documentary to lay out the fuller story many only know from sound bites. For those who knew about oppressed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei from news reports, Never Sorry fills in the blanks and offers an invaluable backstory to this intriguing conceptual artist with uncommon heart, conscience, and courage.
This is one of those documentaries, not unlike the brilliant, recent Queen of Versailles, about the risen and fallen über-rich before and after the economic crash of 2008, in which the unfolding realities of a documentary subject in the spotlight immeasurably spices up the story being captured on film. Here, Klayman follows Ai’s travels to major shows in Munich and the Tate Modern in London, where he lent remarkable, expressive weight to the simple materials of sunflower seeds and children’s backpacks. Meanwhile, back home, the Chinese government was harassing and eventually detaining him for his outspoken work.
By the time the Chinese hammer and handcuffs come down on the artist, a late-breaking moment in a film with an inherently unfinished finale, it comes as no surprise. Ai’s brave and brazen critiques of Chinese officialdom are made global in his art and his ambitious, public-arousing efforts as blogger and Tweeter, particularly surrounding the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008. He was also involved in designing the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics but used his art and fame to question the destruction of lives and landmarks in the process of the ramp-up to the event.
Filmmaker Klayman could easily have waited for the next chapter in the very-much-ongoing Ai Weiwei story before calling it a wrap, but the timing of her film accents the urgency and fuels the “Free Ai Weiwei” spirit we naturally feel by film’s end. Reality doesn’t always supply tidy conclusions, especially in thinking person’s art and dirty politics.