While there may be nothing new or revolutionary about the filmmaking in Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, the film’s subject is such an engaging, daring and slightly preposterous character that it hardly matters. Whether or not you’re familiar with Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, chances are you’ll find him to be most excellent company for the length of this entertaining and occasionally inspiring film. Perhaps he’s best known for his “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — and even better known for turning around and attacking the event as nothing but “feel good” propaganda for China. It was hardly the sort of thing to endear him to the Chinese government, but it was nothing compared to his efforts to publicize the names of the more than 5,000 children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — thanks in no small measure to poorly built government schools.
Not surprisingly, this sort of thing — a great deal of which has been conveyed through Ai Weiwei’s incessant blogging and tweeting (he may be the only persuasive justification I’ve ever seen for Twitter) — has run him afoul with the officials. The government demolished his studio in Shanghai, imprisoned him for months, fined him for supposed income tax evasion — and generally made life difficult. What they have failed to do is actually stop him — whether that’s because he’s too big and too famous or because they simply don’t know what to make of him. In his mind, though, it’s more dangerous not to fight back.
The film carefully documents all this — in part by using Ai Weiwei’s own footage (he realizes the power of recording everything) — and all the various ways he’s (sometimes literally) given the Chinese government the finger. But much of the film is equally as much about creating a portrait of this rumpled, chubby, eccentric and wholly improbable hero. Whether working in his compound (always surrounded by seemingly innumerable cats and dogs as well as assistants), or pursuing a hopeless lawsuit against the government or overseeing the installation of his art work in Munich and London, he comes across as wholly human, flawed and with little in the way of illusions about himself. Ai Weiwei takes himself just seriously enough that we do, but is careful not to take himself all that seriously (at one point he refers to himself as a clown). He clearly doesn’t see himself as in any way privileged. When an interviewer suggests that since he’s an artist it’s acceptable that he has a son by a woman other than his wife, Ai Weiwei is quick to dismiss the idea — noting instead that these things happen, but that doesn’t mean his status as an artist gives him any kind of license.
Even if you don’t like documentaries as a rule, I’m betting you’ll like Ai Weiwei himself so much that you’ll be glad you took the time to get to know him through this film. Really, this is worth seeing for the subject alone. But don’t dawdle: Let’s face it, documentaries just don’t hang around very long. Rated R for some language.