China’s Ai Weiwei is one of the most politically provocative and powerful artists working today. In 2011, Time magazine named him runner-up for Person of the Year, while ArtReview named Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world. He’s also one of the most outspoken critics against China’s repressive policies. Director Alison Klayman paints a revealing portrait of the man and the artist in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.”
Winning the Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” was also named New York Times Critic’s Pick when it opened in New York. Opening in Los Angeles August 3 before expanding to select cities, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is deserving of those accolades for its smart depiction of this important man, flaws and all.
Gaining incredible access to the artist, Klayman follows Weiwei through his art projects and his run-ins with the authorities. At the time of their meeting in 2008, Weiwei is already a controversial artist. One of the designers of the “Birds Nest” Stadium, Weiwei later denounces the Olympic Games as Party propaganda after he witnesses locals being harassed and sent off for not putting on a smile or looking a certain way for the visiting foreigners. He quickly becomes the subject of many international news reports.
For three years, Klayman captures the artist at his studio, traveling and overseeing art installations, including his solo exhibition, “So Sorry,” in Munich, which is an extension of his controversial yet moving “Sichuan Earthquake Names Project.”
In May 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the town of Wenchuan in the Sichuan province and collapsed thousands of buildings, including some 7,000 classrooms. Over 5000 schoolchildren died, which was attributed to the shoddy government construction of the schools. As survivors tried to find answers concerning their children’s death, the government classified information a “state secret.”
Weiwei is seen visiting the site, and subsequently asking for volunteers through social media and his blog to assist him in gathering the truth. Some 50 researchers and volunteers join the project and collect the names of over 5000 deceased students. They virally speak their names in remembrance.
Using social media – Weiwei later embraces Twitter (his handle @aiww) and is even more of a threat to those in power. Promoting one’s political work and message of free speech is a risky endeavor in China, something we Americans take for granted. This naturally creates trouble for Weiwei through attacks and an ominous 81-day disappearance in 2011, when detained by authorities.
Weiwei presents himself as an open book during the filming – answering questions; talking about his art, introducing his art assistants who carry out his creations – one assistant likens herself to a hired assassin. He introduces his wife Lu Qing, his mother, brother, friends, colleagues, and even later his young son, who he fathered through a relationship with actress/editor, Wang Fen.
In a frank interview with a reporter at the Tate Museum on the eve of the opening of his “Sunflower Seeds” exhibit, Weiwei explains that the circumstances surrounding the birth of his son is not a desirable situation for he and his wife. But Weiwei appears to be a doting father, as he and his toddler walk through the multitude of seeds.
Alison Klayman’s “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a compelling and extremely important portrait of Weiwei, the Chinese artist, political activist and hopeful reformer.
Weiwei is 91 minutes, Rated R and opens in Los Angeles August 3.
For other film articles by Lori Huck, check out:
‘360’ Movie Review: A Star-Studded Cast Accentuates Interwoven Global Tales
‘Searching for Sugar Man’: A Wonderful Mystery Tour for Singer-Songwriter Rodriguez