AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY
Written and Directed by: Alison Klayman
Whoever said “Good politics does not make good art,” never met Ai Weiwei, the subject of Alison Klayman’s documentary (her first, but most definitely not her last), AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY. It’s a fascinating, engaging, ultimately compelling examination of an artist whose political activism doesn’t stand apart from his art, but is, in fact, an integral part of his art. As the subtitle implies, AI WEWEI: NEVER SORRY celebrates Ai Weiwei’s defiance and resistance to the Chinese government’s authoritarianism. Unique among Chinese-born and based artists, Ai Weiwei’s international standing protected him for a time from government repression and oppression, but Ai Weiwei’s increasingly vocal calls for institutional reform eventually marked him for arrest and possibly worse. Last year, the Chinese government did, in fact, arrest Ai Weiwei, but not for his outspoken support of free speech, but for tax evasion. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though, so let’s backtrack.
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY evolved over a three-year span. When Klayman, working in Beijing for PBS in 2008, met Ai Weiwei, she was simply documenting a retrospective of his work, “New York Photographs 1983 – 1993,” with her video camera. Ai Weiwei jokingly suggested she make a full-length documentary about his art and activism and Klayman agreed, not only following Ai Weiwei before or during public art shows or installations, but also delves into Ai Weiwei’s unorthodox private life. When we meet Ai Weiwei, he’s married, living and working with a group of artists and artisans in Shanghai. Nearing fifty, Ai Weiwei becomes a first-time father, but not through his wife. Remarkably, Ai Weiwei’s wife and one-time lover develop a detente of sorts. Despite Ai Weiwei’s surprise fatherhood, it’s clear he enjoys his young son’s company.
The same, however, can’t be said about Ai Weiwei’s mother. When the possibility of her visiting Ai Weiwei comes up, he bristles, like every adult son, at the idea of his mother understanding him, his art, or his activism. We learn, however, that his family suffered greatly during Mao’s periodic purges. His father, a poet and intellectual, became a target. Internal exile followed, as did ritual humiliations in public. His father’s apparent acquiescence to protect himself and his family, galvanized Ai Weiwei to become an outspoken critic of the Chinese government’s oppressive policies against dissidents. When we meet Ai Weiwei’s mother, however, we learn that she’s like every mother, deeply concerned about her son’s safety and future. Pride at his accomplishments mixes with those concerns, of course.
Ai Weiwei’s international status, however, doesn’t protect him in perpetuity. Initially, the government allows Ai Weiwei a relative amount of freedom as an indication of their respect, not just for Ai Weiwei’s views, but also for dissidence in general. It’s untrue, of course, just another form of propaganda and like any (and every) form of propaganda, Ai Weiwei’s usefulness to the regime wanes. He becomes the proverbial thorn in their side, especially after he begins a public campaign to identify the tens of thousands of children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Not surprisingly, the government wants to keep the names and with the names, the actual number of dead, unknown (loose building codes led to shoddy, non-earthquake-proof construction). When he’s attacked by a police officer, necessitating life-saving surgery only days later in Germany (he’s there for an art exhibition), he pursues an obviously futile of action, entering a complaint against the officer and insisting on an investigation.
It’s that investigation that seems to trigger the turn in the Chinese government’s behavior from passively tolerant to active oppressive. The government rezones his new art studio in Shanghai, originally built at their invitation, forcing Ai Weiwei to abandon the studio before it’s bulldozed. In an unsurprising act of defiance, Ai Weiwei throws a very public party. That, in turn, leads to harsher measures. The government arrests Ai Weiwei, detaining him for days without contact from his family, friends, or legal representation. The man the cameras capture after his release doesn’t seem like Ai Weiwei at all. He seems broken. It’s a heartrending, if not unexpected, moment, but luckily it’s only temporary. When Klayman says good-bye to Ai Weiwei at the end of the documentary, he’s practically back to the outspoken, defiant Ai Weiwei we met earlier, an artist who, like his work, is defined by his activism.