The Art of Living, by David Bax
If your aim is to learn about the life of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, then this new documentary about him probably won’t satisfy. Less a biography than a rallying cry, Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry attempts to distill and translate the man’s themes and goals in an attempt to win you over to his side of the fight. And make no mistakes, Ai Weiwei does see his life as a battle against inhumanity.
Early on, Klayman presents a survey of Ai’s work, from massive and whimsical sculptures to his contributions to the Beijing National Stadium’s iconic “bird’s nest” design for the 2008 Olympics with a particular focus on his more controversial work, such as a photographic triptych of him shattering an ancient Chinese vase or a series of photos entitled “A Study in Perspective,” all of which feature Ai’s middle finger in the foreground being directed at landmarks such as Tiananmen Square. Subsequently, we are witness to the Chinese government’s attempts to silence Ai. They detain him to prevent his testimony at the trial of a fellow artist. Later, he mysteriously disappears for three months and, once returned, is placed under extended house arrest.
Though we may not get a sense of how Ai Weiwei came to be who he is, we come to intimately understand his personality and beliefs; not only his political beliefs but his artistic ones. If art is personal expression, Ai takes that to its logical conclusion. His art is not limited to the pieces he creates. His art is also how he lives.
Much of that life takes place on the internet, particularly on Twitter. The social media company’s bird logo is almost as ubiquitous in the film as Ai’s round and childlike but striking and endearing face. With his rotund frame and stoner’s demeanor, he possesses none of the sweating intensity of, say, Abby Hoffman but he’s no less an activist. In fact, he’s the perfect activist for these times, when you can make your voice be heard without ever leaving your house and while browsing a half dozen other Firefox tabs.
What makes Ai such an effective instrument for social change is that he’s never stridently haranguing. In fact, he is hardly ever anything less than pleasant and happy-seeming. He makes you want to listen to him and agree with him. It also makes the occasion of his return from the three-month disappearance, captured by news cameras, crushing. For once, the confident and optimistic Ai appears cowed and reticent. We don’t know what happened to him during his absence but we see that he is changed and that we are heartbroken, both for him and for ourselves.
As mentioned, this film isn’t about Ai Weiwei but about the things for which he stands, which are essentially the same things anyway. Never Sorry doesn’t aim to spur you into action by stoking your righteous indignation. Instead, it uses its charming, cool-kid rebel subject to make getting involved seem enticing. We have yet to see how that will work for the people of the world but it makes for a pretty fascinating film.
I think I liked this film a little less than you, though I do agree that its subject is worthy of having a film. I wanted the film to stir me up more – not necessarily make me angry, but make me react to his goals and his struggles. Some of the footage is indeed pretty remarkable (I’m particularly thinking of the “stand-off” between Weiwei and a police officer near the end of the film), but a lot of the money shots are directly taken from Weiwei’s own films, which you can find elsewhere. Also, there are particular plot elements that weren’t explored enough – added into the film for a more “thorns and all” approach, but so awkwardly tip-toed around as to not take away from Weiwei’s positive spirit.