He helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds and uncovered the government-suppressed names of thousands of schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake. Despite these achievements, Chinese superstar artist-activist Ai Weiwei remains elusive on film — until now. With incredible access and the full participation of her subject, Alison Klayman presents a significant yet scattered introduction in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” wrestling to strike the right balance between his public causes and personal life. Given currency by Ai’s 2011 detention, the docu should see extensive fest play.
Klayman’s film was already in post-production when Chinese authorities arrested Ai and held him for 81 days, and though his controversial imprisonment demonstrates just how volatile a figure the artist is, this climactic development feels tacked on to an already somewhat disorganized career overview. As with any art doc, the film faces the challenge of communicating the significance of Ai’s work while still trying to function as a compelling narrative in its own right. The Chinese authorities present the primary tension in Ai’s life, yet Klayman seems reluctant to demonize the government, either out of respect or for fear of making things worse for Ai.
Clearly, the helmer had a wealth of footage from which to draw, tracing from Ai’s days in New York City (the project grew out of a gallery show featuring photos from that period) to observations of the artist at work in his studio. She also has access to video material recorded by Ai and his assistants, sampling freely from his docs “Hua lian ba’er” and “Lau ma ti hua.” But in assembling these many elements, the director applies no overarching vision or design to the film. Individual scenes prove interesting, especially those that hold clues to his personality, such as those involving connection with his illegitimate son, though the structure provides no clear throughline.
Klayman also assumes too great a familiarity with Ai’s work, referencing such projects as the Bird’s Nest and his “Sunflower Seeds” installation without providing auds the tools they need to understand and appreciate these achievements. Still, consistent with nonfiction filmmaking in general, formal clumsiness is easily superseded by a sufficiently compelling subject, and Ai is nothing short of fascinating. Though China has blocked Twitter usage among its citizens, Ai actively interfaces with the outside world in 140 characters or fewer at a time, often posting photos of his run-ins with local authorities.
Rather than dwelling too heavily on his museum shows, much of the film expands upon Ai’s key tweets of the past few years. Hence, the incidents that take precedence include the wrenchingly unjust demolition of his Shanghai artist’s studio and his confrontational attempts to seek justice for a police raid that left him with a bleeding head wound — both major events for Klayman to have caught oncamera.
Among Ai’s better-known work is a series of photographs that feature his extended middle finger superimposed over Tiananmen Square and other iconic sites. Whereas many contemporary artists question authority via their work, Ai does not confine his criticism of hegemony to galleries and museums. Instead, he takes the assault directly to the powers that be, which in turn expands the scope of his work to a form of pseudo-performance art, providing Klayman with a handful of lively “happenings” to include in her film, such as Ai’s heated confrontation with the officer who allegedly beat him.
Though the docu provides occasional insights into Ai’s personality, China serves as the more interesting character here, a complex adversary capable of inspiring a range of creative reactions from the artist. By opening with a metaphor about exceptional cat that has learned to open doors, Klayman stresses the one-in-a-billion odds of someone like Ai existing. The film is a good start, but such an important artist deserves a more rigorous portrait.