Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Sundance Selects, R)

film never-sorry_75Any documentary that makes you more aware of the world in which you live should be celebrated.


film never-sorry_500

Much has already been made of the fact that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei went under house arrest while the young Western documentarian Alison Klayman was making a film about him. While it’s horrible that Weiwei endured under house arrest under these circumstances, it was useful for the film; after all, it gives the movie a nice dramatic arc, and a more obvious ending. Beyond that, though, the timing of the film’s release in America is also rather serendipitous. Weiwei begin making a name for himself as an artist outside of his native country for his participation in the design of the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics back in 2008 (and his subsequent criticism of the Olympics between the completion of the stadium and the start of the games). In addition, the whole notion of Chinese dissidents—and the difference between the way the Chinese government view them, and the way most of the rest of the world views them—was underlined once again in the big news story of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s escaping his house arrest back in May. To restate a little more succinctly: It’s hard to think of a time where the release of a film such as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry would be timelier than it is right at this moment.

It helps, too, that it’s a good film. Weiwei makes for a very interesting subject; he’s half cuddly teddy bear and half shit-disturber, with a little bit of old-fashioned charmer mixed in. Not unlike certain stand-up comedians I could name (George Carlin, Bill Hicks, etc.), Weiwei has used his growing success in the art world as a platform to criticize the Chinese government. In general, he keeps a step or two ahead of them by embracing new forms of media and data dissemination. One particularly noteworthy example is that he was an early adopter of blogging and Twitter, and his Twitter posts often are of the caliber of a quote pulled from Bartlett’s, as opposed to a post from your average Hollywood dickhead.

Meanwhile, his art has a long history of baiting the Chinese government. One of his most famous pieces (which is being used as the film’s one-sheet, not coincidentally) is “A Study in Perspective,” which has Weiwei holding the camera and taking a photograph with one hand, issuing the middle finger with his other hand, and pointing said middle finger in the direction of a famous landmark: Tiananmen Square.

AW:NS is Klayman’s first feature film, and as such, it’s not terribly surprising that the film has some flaws. Chief among these is that it fails to really inspire any kind of outrage/rallying behind the artist. Weiwei is very likeable and you don’t want to see him censored, but it seems strange that the film doesn’t work you up more than it does. (That said, its restraint and avoidance of easy manipulation can be commended.) Also, it falls into the recently common trap where people who speak in English but with accents are subtitled, which I’ve almost always found insulting to the interviewee as well as the audience.

All the same, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a good crash course on Weiwei’s life, M.O., and current problems in trying to wiggle out from under the government’s grasp. Perhaps when you return home from the theater, you might find yourself with a newfound interest in rereading all of those New York Times articles about Guangcheng. And really, any documentary that makes you more aware of the world in which you live, as this one does, should be celebrated. | Pete Timmermann

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