Directed by Alison Klayman
Written by Alison Klayman
Some concepts in modern life can feel maudlin and totally appropriate at the same time. One such idea, one that deserves more importance among our young generation, is that a single person can make a difference in the world. No matter how corny this sounds, the idea is exemplified by the excellent new documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, profiling the lightning-rod artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he rails against the police-state environment in China and meets resistance at all sides.
Ai Weiwei, only a few years ago, was at a creative and commercial peak, having been commissioned by the Chinese government to help design the Bird’s Nest, the stadium that would serve as the centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But after bringing the stadium to life, Ai made inflammatory artwork against the Olympics and the government by literally giving the Bird’s Nest the finger. This set off a chain of events that led him on a crusade against police and the dictatorial Chinese government, all documented by the artist and by Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’s director, co-editor, and cinematographer, Alison Klayman. Klayman uses her unprecedented access into Ai’s life and methods to craft a taut, compelling, and infuriating story of activism in the face of impossible adversity.
Considering that this is Klayman’s first film, the pacing and structure of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is perhaps the movie’s strongest suit. The film is only 90 minutes long, but never once feels slack or unfocused. Having a figure as charismatic and intelligent as Ai Weiwei at the center helps, but Klayman has a sure hand behind the camera, and an impressive ability to build and maximize tension throughout. Because of his very public acts of defiance, Ai often runs afoul of the cops, such as when he’s physically attacked by one in the middle of the night in a hotel room. This incident dominates the whole film, leading to various suspenseful confrontations. There’s something telling about the fact that Ai’s run-ins are, as presented here, far more intense than anything in most mainstream thrillers. Frankly, the less you know about this film’s subject, the more these scenes will work; knowing that anything could happen raises the stakes immensely.
A timely element in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is Ai’s shrewd and powerful choice to harness social media in his favor. Soon after the events of the film begin, he discovers what connections he can gain through Twitter. Instantly, he documents every part of his fight against the system, taking pictures and video of his daily strife. Though Ai was already a respected and prolific artist, his activism goes globally viral after he unites citizens of the world around his cause on the social media platform. Klayman’s choice to weave in Ai’s real tweets and photos gives the film a you-are-there feel, and emphasizes how such public David-and-Goliath fights like this have changed, even within the last few years.
What ends up being the only serious problem in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the usage of subtitles. Ai, who lived in New York for a period in the 1980s and 1990s, can speak English but has a thick enough accent that it’s not as clear to hear as when we listen to footage of English news broadcasts or a clip of Hillary Clinton speaking about Ai’s plight. Having subtitles to make Ai’s English clearer is fine, but the usage is extremely inconsistent. Some of the time, when he speaks English, there aren’t any subtitles, but other times, they appear. In one instance, a British journalist is even subtitled as he speaks his country’s native language. More often than not, you don’t need the subtitles (especially not with the journalist), which makes the on-again, off-again use baffling and distracting.
As much as the subtitles may frustrate, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is purely engrossing cinema. It’s only when we see how not everyone in the world shares our seemingly basic rights and freedoms that we feel compelled to act. This film is a stark and sobering example of such frustrating and maddening disparity. Each sequence, from the police attack (filmed by Ai and his colleagues, as are a few other segments) to his choosing to eat in public and rallying followers via Twitter to do the same despite cops monitoring his actions, is a balance between inspiring and enervating. Watching someone whose heart is in the right place, who we know is on the side of justice, fight a system he knows will fail him is aggravating. That eternal battle is at the heart of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a vital, important and entertaining documentary, a movie everyone who believes in liberty and freedom should see.
– Josh Spiegel