Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Directed by Alison Klayman

September 18th, 2012

Anyone who has ever questioned the power of art to affect change should view Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry immediately. Ai Weiwei is China’s most prominent international artist and also one of its most vocal domestic critics. In the face of strict censorship, police brutality, an unresponsive legal system and a repressive government, Ai creates his work and voices his protest through various social media outlets, literally risking his physical freedom in the process. In Never Sorry, with open access to the artist’s life and work, Director Alison Klayman trails the art star as he thinks, creates, installs major exhibitions, and interacts with family and friends. Drawing on interviews with Ai’s wife and family, curators and cultural commentators, fellow artists, and some of the throngs of people inspired and motivated by the artist’s call to change, Klayman paints a thorough and nuanced portrait of the complex, committed and humbly heroic artist. Never Sorry was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary, but it would be an impressive feat even for a seasoned filmmaker.

While most artists in Beijing are “in the system”, Ai lived in New York for 10 years beginning in 1983, at the centre of a vibrant, avant-garde art scene. When he returned to Beijing he found an oppressed and depressed art community. Klayman effectively demonstrates the ominous and overwhelming presence of the state and the constant veil of threat under which dissidents such as Ai live and work. She captures the surveillance cameras hovering around the studio, the unmarked cars lurking, the bulldozing of the artist’s newly built studio, as well as police harassing him as he shares a meal outdoors with some fans. Poignantly, as the police film Ai enjoying a bowl of soup, Ai’s videographer turns his lens on the police, creating a standoff of sorts. Ai is asked how he can be so fearless in the face of such an oppressive state; Ai replies that he is fearful that if he does not act, things will only get worse. He is unrelenting in his defiance. A digital dissident, Ai uses social media as his weapon, tweeting and blogging constantly about the injustices that he and his fellow citizens face in China. In one of his many projects, Ai gathers the names and birthdates of the more than 5000 victims of the Sichuan earthquake, many of whom died due to the unsound government buildings they were in when the earthquake struck. Ai listed all this information, a census mimicking the work the government should have collected but refused to release, on his blog – for which it was promptly shut down. Although much of his work is politically strident, Ai also creates visually stunning works such as his incredible installation Sunflower Seeds for Tate Modern in 2010 consisting of 100 million sunflower seeds. Each seed was hand-painted suggestive of the individuality of human kind. Klayman does an admirable job of capturing both the political significance of Ai’s work as well as its artistic merit.

Although not purposefully sensationalist, the events that unfold while Klayman films Ai create a dramatic narrative. One night while Ai sleeps in a hotel room, the police enter and attack him. Although Ai promptly tweets photos of the brutality, it is systematically denied. He is eventually hospitalized and requires an operation as a result of the blow to the head he suffered at the hands of the police. Although Ai recognizes it is highly unlikely he will see anyone brought to justice for this assault, he files an official complaint stating that one cannot simply say the system doesn’t work, one must work through it and demonstrate that it is flawed. The film comes to a dramatic climax when in 2011, Ai was detained without trial for 81 days. Under the guise of tax evasion, and despite the uproar of the democratic world, the authorities held him cut off from the outside world for almost 3 months. Reporters swarmed upon his release and this once outspoken dissident simply stated “I cannot give any interview, sorry.” Ai was eventually charged with owing $2.4 million in taxes and in an overwhelming show of support, many ordinary citizens sent in money to help him cover this debt. Refusing to be silenced, a few months later, he was back at media outlets denouncing his treatment and the actions of the Chinese government. The film ends with the words “Never Retreat, Re-tweet”.

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