In April of 2011, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei went from being art-world star and thorn in the side of his national government to household name around the world. After disappearing mysteriously, it was soon revealed that Ai was being held by the Chinese authorities, leading to international protests and his eventual release into a sort of house arrest after 81 days in custody. Alison Klayman ends Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, her incisive docu-portrait of the artist, with these events, and the effect is stunning. After profiling her spirited, defiant subject over several years, she captures him at film’s end nearly mute, humbled, returning to his home while informing reporters that he’s unable to tell them anything about what happened to him.
This removal of Ai’s public voice stands in stark contrast to what we’ve seen throughout the film in which the artist creates deliberately provocative works—many designed to question the Chinese government’s anti-democratic practices—and freely denounces his country’s ruling communist party in interviews, often making obsessive use of Twitter to communicate with followers around the world. So great is Ai’s reliance on that social-media platform that Klayman uses it as a structural device, returning to a series of shots of computer screens in which the artist tweets on a variety of subjects. In fact, one of the film’s strengths is to show how Ai successfully uses social media to stay one step ahead of the authorities, as when he arranges a public dinner in his studio the night before the government-decreed demolition of that work space. When we learn, at the film’s end, that one of the conditions of Ai’s release is a ban on his Twitter use, there’s the sense of a real loss of the artist’s public voice.
But until then, Ai is the star of this show and he doesn’t disappoint. The portly artist with the overgrown beard is an irresistible subject, expressing his viewpoints to the camera with a dry and often wicked sense of humor, supervising the preparation of large-scale works, or simply hanging about his studio grounds with his menagerie of dogs and cats. Much of the film focuses on an incident in which the artist was beaten by a police club in his hotel room in Chengdu while uncovering information about a 2008 earthquake that rocked the region and whose details the government largely covered up. Although we don’t see the actual incident, we see the footage leading up to it (Ai, acutely aware of the power of the moving image, never travels anywhere without his videographer), and we see the artist’s dogged attempts to seek some kind of justice afterward, not because he actually expects to receive any legal satisfaction, but because he understands that a person cannot criticize the system unless he’s tried to work within it.
Klayman fills out her film with some useful background, charting the artist’s bohemian days in the 1980s when he lived on New York’s Lower East Side and had his first solo show before returning to Beijing several years after the incidents at Tiananmen Square triggered his guilt for being away from home. She also includes footage of the artist installing several major exhibits, such as a blockbuster show at London’s Tate Gallery, and the accompanying interviews which show that for Ai the political and artistic are profoundly intertwined. Although Klayman’s film is fairly ordinary in its documentary mixture of interviews, archival footage, and observational scenes, and while it’s anything but formally radical (though handsome enough), the director’s clear-minded approach allows her subject’s more challenging aesthetic-political mix to shine through, even if it’s at the inevitable expense of her own filmmaking proclivities.