Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Film Review

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a revealing look into the life of Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most famous contemporary artists and political figures.  Filmmaker Alison Klayman began her film in 2008, and looks at Ai’s early activities, following through to the destruction of his studio and his near 3 month incarceration in mid-2011. The film is a revealing look into Chinese censorship, and those, such as Ai, who speak out against government abuses of power.

Political protest seems to run in Ai’s family. His father, Ai Qing, a famous poet, was convicted during the Anti-Rightist Movement, exiled and sentenced to work in a labour camp located in Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei was raised, and spent a good portion of his childhood in this camp. During his formative years in the early 80’s, Ai moved to New York and spent 12 years building his experience as an artist before returning home to see his ailing father. He continued his art in Beijing throughout the 90’s, taking part in an underground experimental artist movement that was largely ignored by official galleries.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens with Ai preparing for his latest show. He invites Klayman’s camera into his home studio, where we see him and his volunteers hard at work. Ai states that he is rarely involved in the production of his art any longer, acting more like a chess player and making decisions. For instance, one of his most recent works, ‘Sunflower Seeds’, required an enormous team of people to complete. The piece involved Ai filling a room in the Tate Modern with 100 million hand painted, porcelain sunflower seeds. The visual impact, and sheer scale of this work is breathtaking.

Ai is perhaps most famously known for his work in designing the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) for the Olympics. However, Ai soon became very vocally opposed to the Olympics, speaking to international media about his condemnation of the event. Chinese media seemed to ignore his comments, and it wasn’t until he began investigating the deaths of students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, that he began to draw the ire of the Chinese government. Many deaths in the Sichuan earthquake were students who were killed in poorly constructed government schools. When the Chinese government refused to launch an investigation or look into the number of deaths, Ai and a group of volunteers set out to interview villagers and the grieving families themselves. A year after the earthquake, Ai posted the list of students names he had collected onto his blog. The government promptly took action, and responded by surrounding his home with surveillance cameras and taking down his blog. In response, Ai moved the bulk of his online activity to Twitter.

I was fairly unfamiliar with Ai and his work, and this film presents a cohesive and entertaining portrait. The documentary flits about in a fairly linear fashion, covering many of Ai’s exhibitions and political work, as well as his daily life. The film is told through an interesting assortment of interviews, photographs, footage from Ai’s own documentaries, and screenshots of Ai’s Twitter stream. Ai is a Twitter addict, spending hours on it everyday searching for news and tweeting to his followers.

The film portrays Ai as part selfless activist, part mischievous troublemaker looking to instill social change in China. Many of his actions are brazen attempts to raise the fist of the Chinese Government. On camera, Ai speaks with measured clarity, and is conscious of the need to push back in order to create social change in China. When asked in an interview how he can be so fearless, Ai responds that he is not more fearless than others, but is rather more fearful. He is afraid of the powers of his government, and this fear pushes him to act. If no one does, he explains, the government will only become stronger.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry makes it very clear that Ai is a privileged critic of Chinese society. His international fame keeps him relatively safe, while other activists, famous within China alone, are regularly tried and throw into prison. Their crime: “inciting subversion of state power”. However, even Ai is not completely safe, as throughout the film, we see his harassment at the hands of the police, the destruction of his studio, and his imprisonment in an undisclosed location, which lasted nearly 3 months.

In all, the film creates an engaging story that shines light on the daily processes of its venerable subject. Although well told, I think the film could have benefitted from interviews with Chinese government officials regarding Ai and his work. A contrarian perspective would have been interesting, and fleshed out the variety of viewpoints surrounding Ai. Regardless, if you want an impassioned look at one of China’s most interesting public figures, be sure to check out Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.