Alison Klayman may be the credited director of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, but, in one important sense, the real auteur of this documentary turns out to be the subject himself. Ai Weiwei, of course, is not only a world-renowned artist, but one of the most vocal critics of the repressive communist Chinese government in the public sphere. But though he experienced some of the heartbreaking effects of government repression during his childhood (his parents were sentenced to a labor camp in Xinjiang after his father, poet Ai Qing, was denounced by the government in 1958 during the Anti-Rightist Movement), Ai mostly focused on his art during his ensuing university years and early career, choosing to move to New York for 12 years before returning to China in 1993. In the film, a fellow artist friend of his recalls that Ai, if anything, was known almost as much for his card-playing abilities as for his artistic ones while living in New York's East Village. Suffice it to say, his energies are more activist-oriented these days.
Only in recent years, really, has the dissident artist garnered his button-pushing reputation, especially after he openly denounced the Chinese government for its Olympics-related extravagance in 2008 even after being one of the designers of the Bird's Nest stadium. Since then, he has engaged in bolder and more combative acts of criticism, taking to social media—Twitter, most notably—to bring his activism to a global audience after the government shut down his blog.
It's Ai's newfound engagement with social media that offers the most interesting thread running throughout Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. At one point, one of the interview subjects acknowledges that, with the help of online video, social media, and so on, Ai is turning his activism into essentially an epic piece of performance art, meant to bring awareness of injustices in China to a mass audience. Case in point: A year after he was assaulted by a police officer in a hotel room in Chengdu while he was there serving as a witness on behalf of now-imprisoned activist Tan Zuoren, Ai returns with a camera crew to the area and attempts to file a request for a hearing against the assaulting officer, willingly jumping through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops in order to accomplish this goal. The probability is high that none of his running about from office to office will produce any appreciable results—yet, Ai persists anyway, using Twitter to post photos tracking his progress, turning this act into an end in and of itself.
Klayman's documentary is itself a form of media, of course, and being that Ai is, naturally, the predominant presence in the film, one can't help but wonder if Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is itself just another installment in his grand-scale activist performance-art piece, whether Klayman intended it to be such or not. There's one thread that potentially casts a chink in Ai's righteous artist/activist armor: the introduction of Ai's three-year-old son, Ai Lao—a son mothered not by his wife, Lu Qing, but by another woman, shown on screen but not probed very deeply about the connection. The fact that Klayman never seriously pursues this thread suggests either that she's reluctant to go too deeply beyond Ai's undeniably laudable public persona, or that she was simply unable to do so as a result of her film being conceptually tied down to whatever Ai deemed it necessary to share with her camera.
If Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry works (for the uninitiated, it will prove to be a sufficiently inspiring experience), it works because Ai himself is a charismatic subject that engages in enlivening ways of taking his own government to task for its abuses of power. As activism, it basically preaches to the choir, taking art's power to inspire social and political change as a given from the outset. As a portrait of a galvanized and galvanizing artist, however, it's compelling, if less rigorous and multifaceted than it might have been in more inquisitive hands.
This year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 14 – 28. For more information, click here.