Following a limited theatrical run, Alison Klayman’s rousing political protest and art documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is at last widely available on Blu-ray from Sundance Selects. Weiwei, a veteran conceptual artist – and recently one of China’s most prominent and controversial public figures – is best known for his incendiary attacks on China’s suppressive and tyrannical political regime. Never Sorry is an exciting and inspiring movie on multiple levels, painting Weiwei as an irresistibly funny, courageous, and charismatic man, as well as a great artist. More importantly, the film reaffirms the importance of creative expression and social protest – separately, and as complementary facets of the shared human desire to foster communication, engender positive experience, and promote freedom.
Born and raised in Communist China, Weiwei immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult. He began his artistic career as an influential, but still relatively niche contributor to the New York art scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, helping to bridge the gap between the previously disparate international traditions of the East and West. Even in his earliest work, provocative social objectives were apparent – one of his first exhibited pieces was a raincoat with a hole cut out and a condom attached, referencing the confusion and hysteria that surrounded the United States’ freshly burgeoning AIDS epidemic. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s, however, with the politically controversial advent of the Beijing Olympics, that Weiwei became an international celebrity. After being selected by the Chinese government to design Beijing’s Olympic stadium, Weiwei famously issued a public statement condemning the government’s callous and oppressive approach to the stadium’s construction, and to the staging of the games themselves, both of which Weiwei viewed as attempts to ingratiate China’s leadership to the international community at the expense of Chinese citizens’ happiness and well-being.
Though Never Sorry doesn’t skimp on beautifully photographed images of Weiwei’s impressively sprawling gallery installations, which are elaborately crafted and gorgeous, the real subject of the film is the artist’s struggle, in the years following the Beijing Stadium incident, to thwart the constantly intensifying scrutiny of the Chinese government. Prior to 2008, Weiwei had made the difficult decision to return to China following the Tiananmen Square massacre, wherein Chinese military convoys had been ordered to gun down hundreds of peaceful student protesters. Perhaps the most iconic image Weiwei has produced to this day is a black-and-white photograph of Tiananmen with Weiwei’s own hand in the foreground, defiantly flipping the Square off. After the public embarrassment surrounding Weiwei’s prominently publicized “Bird’s Nest” stadium, however, China’s political regime unambiguously declared war on the artist, subjecting him to an endless program of surveillance, threats, and harassment.
After his personal blog and associated websites were shut down by China’s notoriously stringent Internet censors, Weiwei turned to Twitter, where he was quickly able to tap into an active network of similarly disgruntled Chinese citizens eager to fight back against institutional oppression. By successfully harnessing the revolutionary potential of social media, Weiwei was able to amass a phalanx of widely dispersed political dissidents virtually overnight – not just in China, but in all parts of the world. Utilizing these resources, he was able to successfully launch a number of projects geared toward achieving greater government transparency and accountability. The incredibly public and real-time elements that social networks afforded also gave Weiwei an unprecedented degree of social leverage. When he was attacked and severely beaten by police, Weiwei Tweeted photos of himself in the hospital alongside official denials that the incident had ever occurred, emphasizing both the brutality and the deception of China’s corrupt law enforcement.
As a fine artist, Weiwei freely admits that his goal is merely to create and offer ideas, which are then built, refined, and expanded by others. His studio pieces are realized by massive armies of commissioned artisans and creative assistants, and his work in the social justice sphere, which depends on the dedication and support of thousands of vocal supporters, parallels that process. If anything, the work Weiwei does is captivating specifically because of how it stresses this shared collaborative element. Weiwei is persistently interested in the value of human life and individual experience, particularly when measured against the value of inflated symbols and ideologies. The accessibility and shared authorship of the work, whether in a gallery or in the political arena, is therefore a fundamental part of its meaning and purpose.
Sundance’s Blu-ray is full of extra material, including deleted scenes, director’s commentary, and extended interviews with several of the film’s key subjects, including Weiwei himself. Even without any advance knowledge about the intricacies of China’s political tribulations, Never Sorry is an incredibly compelling film, and it’s also a surprisingly informative primer on the state of the nation its subject is currently fighting so diligently to liberate. It’s impossible not to instantly like and respect a person as passionate, brave, and irreverently goofy as Weiwei, and his childlike enthusiasm for truth, justice, and integrity (and pork buns) is beyond infectious.
Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby