Alison Klayman’s documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a highly revealing and often deeply moving portrait of China’s premier artist and perhaps most notorious detractor. Despite previously aiding and abetting in curating the communist state’s declarations of influence and power – participating in the design and construction of Beijing’s now iconic ‘bird’s nest’ Olympic stadium – Ai Weiwei’s renunciation of his motherland, via the medium of his artwork, (predominantly sculpture, photography and performance video) has earned him the status of storyteller of the voiceless and enemy of the state.
After investigating the 2008 Sichuan earthquake tragedy, (Inferior government ‘tofu-construction’ led to the collapse of several schools and kindergartens during the deadly earthquake, killing over five thousand children) documenting the names of the children killed and posting them online as a means of providing a tangible record of the those lost beneath the rubble and political whitewash, Ai Weiwei’s activities and agenda fell under unshakeable scrutiny from the Chinese establishment, eventually leading to his silencing. Never Sorry follows the artist upon this dangerous road to detention (in 2011 Weiwei was dubiously arrested for alleged “economic crimes”) and his unprecedented release, whilst illustrating how and when Weiwei transitioned from L’Enfant terrible to figurehead of sociopolitical change and powerhouse activist. Aided by Weiwei’s back-catalogue of work, and interviews with gallery owners, curators and his contemporaries, the film traces his passage through China’s enigmatic avant-garde circles to New York City’s underground art scene, right up until his status as the world most powerful artist. Director Alison Klayman’s access to the artist is seemingly constant and unflinchingly unrestricted, not only dissecting Weiwei’s painstaking artistic processes but illuminating his unconventional personal life and the characters from whom it is constructed. From conversations with Weiwei’s band of protégées to candid footage of him interacting with his young son, an intricate illustration of an impassioned and complicated individual is presented, revealing why, and for whom, Weiwei keeps fighting – despite facing such insurmountable opposition.
The most startling moments of the documentary come via footage of the Chinese government and their initially physical and violent opposition to Weiwei; one such late night altercation leaving the artist with internal bleeding requiring emergency brain surgery. Weiwei’s relentless yet knowingly futile pursuit of justice constantly pits the artist and his followers against the state, revealing just how oppressive and deeply corrupt institutions such as the Chinese judiciary and police can prove. Studies of his exhibition pieces and installations such as ‘Remembering’, a façade of children’s backpacks adorning Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum and ‘Sunflower Seeds’, one hundred million porcelain seeds, each individually hand-painted in the town of Jingdezhen by Chinese artisans and scattered across the floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine hall, clearly display the deeply emotional connection and investment present within Weiwei’s work, not only from the artist himself, but the people of China, for whom he has become a conduit of expression in the face of repression.
For a debut-feature filmmaker whose background lies in print and radio journalism and not the walls of a film school, Never Sorry is a highly accomplished work in terms of both content and aesthetic, alluding to Klayman’s future as possibly one of the finest and most dedicated investigative filmmakers cinema has to offer. A careful balance between “truth-seeking” narrative, revealing character study, and affectionate homage is consistently maintained, informing and inspiring in equal measure. Despite Ai Weiwei’s personal life currently resting in turmoil, and the film ending on what could easily be described as a sombre, defeated tone, as Klayman herself states “Ai Weiwei is far from over”. Irrespective of who may be spreading his word, Never Sorry illuminates the importance of why Ai Weiwei’s message should not be allowed to be suppressed, buried and re-written by the motherland he rose up against.