Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

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Ai Weiwei and one of his many cats in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Through his 30 years in the art world and his concurrent works of activism, Chinese native Ai Weiwei has become a larger-than-life figure. We have a tendency to almost canonize people who work for the betterment of their societies (see: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa), and I admit I had started thinking of Ai in this fashion. The movie Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry reminds us that there is most definitely a man, foibles and all, behind the works of art and activism.

American director Alison Klayman's first film documents a few years (2008-2011) in the life of Ai. The Chinese artist is interviewed by various media, as well as the director, throughout the documentary. We are told some of his family history -- his dad, poet Ai Qing, suffered persecution and imprisonment by the Chinese government through large chunks of his life.  This gives some background into Ai's determination to make noise and be heard (also, it seems watching the Iran Contra hearings on TV while he lived in NYC made a large impact on him as well). "Chinese law is a big joke," he tells the camera at one point.

Ai Weiwei really burst into the international spotlight with his work on the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, followed by his outspoken refusal to attend the 2008 Olympics in his home country. The audience is shown glimpses of his artistic process for a few of his works. "I mainly make the decisions," he says, leaving assistants to do further work on his pieces.

Some of his more breathtaking work was done in reaction to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, amid his frustration with the government response (or lack thereof). Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry includes clips from Ai's own films Lao Ma Ti Hua, which documents his attempt to testify at the trial of an activist in Chengdu (foiled by local cops who beat and arrested the artist the night before the trial) and Hua Lian Ba'er, about the parents of some of the thousands of schoolchildren killed in the earthquake. It is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to witness the installation of his 2009 work, "Remembering", at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

Ai Weiwei has become a prolific user of Twitter, and has incorporated new media in recent work. One of his creations was made up of audio from thousands of different people each speaking the name of one of the schoolchildren killed in the 2008 earthquake. His tweets feature largely into the construction of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. We're shown the tweet (and photo) he posted upon his arrest in Chengdu, as his wife and others speak about it.

Here we run into my one issue with the documentary -- although my sister complained that the film's chronology is rather confusing, that didn't bother me. In an interview in his home studio, wife Lu Qing (an artist in her own right) talks about her husband and his determined and outspoken nature. I'm assuming her interview was filmed in 2008 or 2009, because later in the film, we find out that Ai Weiwei had a baby son with "a friend" and the film has no comment from his spouse. Where is she, and what does she think about this? Perhaps I'm not meant to wonder about it, since the film is about the man and not his wife, but still I found her silence very strange.

This is just a small blemish in what otherwise is an amazingly powerful film about someone speaking truth to power.  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry even includes updates on his current situation; be sure to stay through the end credits.

Bonus: Part of this documentary was first shown on the PBS show Frontline last year, and you can view that portion online.  Seeing that story on Frontline made me even more fascinated by the Chinese artist's story and plight, but it's only a taste of what you get with the full-length film.