Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is dramatic and peripatetic
Featuring Ai Weiwei. Rated R. Opens Friday (August 31) at the Fifth Avenue. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles
All true artists are activists, if only because art is intended to stimulate new thought. But China’s Ai WeiWei takes that notion to new levels, in both his life and work—inseparable, as seen in this compelling overview.
Like Ai, the movie is dramatic and peripatetic. Nominally directed by Alison Klayman, who did an earlier version for PBS’s Frontline series, Never Sorry follows the lead of her bearded, food-loving subject, whose media savvy is a dominant part of his art. The filmmaker was, perhaps, overawed by Ai’s persona, and she doesn’t spend much time explaining his importance in the world of art, architecture, and design. The viewer is convinced by his physical presence, though, coupled with the excellent English he learned while spending his twenties in New York City. (There’s even an iconic photo of him, with long hair, in front of CBGB.)
An obsessive self-documenter, Ai uses ever-at-hand cameras and cellphones to relate, mostly through Twitter, what’s happening to him at any given moment—including a police assault when he goes to Sichuan province to work on his most challenging project, collecting the names of all the children killed in the 2010 earthquake that flattened hundreds of poorly built schools. It remains baffling why Beijing doesn’t just admit mistakes instead of putting so much energy into squashing a few outspoken voices. The fact that Ai saw his father, a famous poet and devoted Communist, killed in one of Mao’s arbitrary purges, obviously informs both his combative cynicism, and inspires an oddly optimistic patriotism.
As with The Island President, this tale has moved since the credits rolled. A ban on travel from the capital, imposed a year ago (and depicted here), was lifted in July, though he’s still barred from leaving China. Perhaps more painfully, he’s still not allowed near the Internet. Of course, Ai Weiwei has been known to break rules.
Watch the trailer for Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.