Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry
It’s no surprise that "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" covers a lot of ground in under 90 minutes. The surprise is in what ground it covers. Seemingly a story about a renowned artist whose transition into political activism cost him no less than his own voice; "Never Sorry" doubles as a call-to-action for everyone who’s ever used the internet. While Ai’s installations and rebellions (he spends an inordinate amount of time filing charges that won’t stick against the government; just because he "has to") take center stage early, it’s his use of the World Wide Web - to freely distribute documentaries, to bring people together for the sake of his art projects, or even to democratize Twitter for the East - that inspires, shocks, and feels nothing less than new. We all know we have an amazing, life-changing tool on our computer’s desktop - but Ai, and this film, are of the few that find uses worthy of its potential.
American filmmaker Alison Klayman must have known she had found something special when she wandered into Ai Weiwei’s inner circle. Dedicated to filming everything they can as a form of political activism (many shots in the film feature Klayman’s camera looking at the installed and handheld surveillance cameras used by the Chinese government,) the group were more than ripe for their own documentary. When she enters, Ai is an esteemed Chinese visual artist with an undeniably edgy worldview. By the time her film leaves us, he has become one of the world’s most prominent visual artists and a figure for cultural revolution.
And Klayman’s film mirrors this with a study of another even more important figure for cultural revolution in the internet. As Ai’s political statements become more and more pointed, the government shuts down his extremely popular blog (the straw on the camel’s back, for what it’s worth, was his project aiming to publicly list the names of thousands left dead in an Earthquake; a service the government refused to offer themselves.)
Ai takes to Twitter, which exists outside China’s "Great Firewall," and in this the film seems to find its true story (or at least, considering the constant pop-up Twitter graphics that transition us from scene to scene, the story that Klayman is most interested in.) The unmentioned subtext of the film comes in the way this seeming innocuous website, one we Americans probably use mostly for talking about sports, movies, or cats, and turns it into a symbol for both social upheaval and public rebellion.
Perhaps that’s the beauty of "Never Sorry," in the way it smoothly and organically transitions from one story to another to another. Is this film about a man? About the internet? Or about a countries ability to silence an individual, no matter how strong-willed he or she may be? My take - all of the above.
The film is, admittedly, limited by its captured-on-the-fly take: no doubt viewers will want to know more about Ai’s family - he’s married but recently had a child with another woman; the mention of it on-camera never fails to produce his only moments of awkwardness and silence. The same goes for his years spent in the USA in the 80s, soaking up "subversive" works by Warhol and other visual artists; he would later distribute images of them illegally throughout China.
Such a huge influence on the man’s work deserves more than a footnote, but the documentary is clearly secondary to Ai’s life; not the other way around. What we have is a social document more than a biography; allowing the denouements that close it to take even stronger effect. Some bio-docs let you feel as though you’ve lived the subject’s life. For better or worse, this one makes you feel like an eavesdropper.
Klayman finds a conclusion she never could have dreamed of, in terms of Ai’s life or in terms of her film. Once his rebellion-as-art gains the kind of support they find worrisome, the Chinese government finds a way to silence Ai (the story, redacted even from his own interviews, is told in after-the-fact text bubbles.) She captures contradiction after contradiction, unwarranted arrests one after the other, cameras filming tapes that will never be seen. And levels of surveillance that would surprise even our most politically-paranoid citizens - Ai’s pictures of things that take pictures form his most pointed Twitter-attacks.
What begins as a vain character study ends up one of the years most daring works of art rebelling against oppression (though, certainly, "Never Sorry" can’t hold a candle to its spiritual companion piece "This is Not a Film," another work by a visual artist locked into house arrest.) What happens to Ai is not a shock nor is it unexpected. The true surprise is the existence of "Never Sorry," and just how striking and direct it is about his life. It’s one last middle finger from a man who has already had his digits locked down.