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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

2012 | 91 min | Not rated | 1.78:1

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


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Theatrical release date

 27 July, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Blu-ray

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 9, 2012

It’s become trendy for art documentaries to celebrate the celebrity culture surrounding the artist in question. It’s a glorification of bratty behavior, subversive activities, and pop culture ascension that can be undeniably entertaining, but rare is the cinematic exploration that uncovers the soulfulness of personal expression. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a portrait of a man who’s created quite a name for himself in the art world, currently in a position where he doesn’t even have to physically create his own work for show, leaving the craftsmanship to his staff. Although this lack of a personal touch is startling, the saga of Ai makes it clear this celebrated individual has plenty more on his mind, using his world-famous name to bring attention to his most passionate subject: China.

Directed by Alison Klayman, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a documentary that chases the work of the titular artist, hoping to keep up with a whirring mind as it leaps from creation to mourning, celebration to resistance. Born and raised in China, Ai is a special figure in the world art scene, wowing fans with his installations and imagination, flavored during an enlightening decade spent in New York City during the 1980s. Eccentric, yet determined to expand thought, Ai made a name for himself, thriving in a land of plenty. Returning home to care for his sick father in the mid-1990s, Ai discovered a tidal change within himself, recognizing the dangers of Communist China and their tireless war against free expression.

Watching artists, lawyers, and intellectuals rounded-up and imprisoned for their beliefs and ideas, Ai turned to art to ease his unsettled mind, using his burgeoning fame to express himself in a land opposed to such a radical notion, creating works of art reflecting his own searching personality, while exploring the troubling policies of a great nation. To Ai, the desecration of an ancient vase is indeed a brash act of recklessness, but no worse than the Chinese government, who clear acres of history daily in the name of progress. For years, Ai went about his business, using his stoic demeanor to cloak his aggressive message of revolt, often shooting up his bulging middle finger (his weapon of choice) in the presence of sacred cows, taking refuge inside his studio -- a compound devoted to contemplation, home to 50 dogs and cats, one who can open the front door all by himself. It’s an act of observance and defiance that floors Ai.

Receiving acclaim for his work in the art world, Ai began to take his activism more seriously, eventually finding his way to Twitter as a means of worldwide communication, sharing stories of contemporaries senselessly locked away while posting cell phone pictures of himself and his daily interactions, gathering a devoted following of users thrilled with Ai’s acts of rebellion, looking to a man who can get away with asking questions while others are killed for such a treasonous act. Armed with a team of cameramen and access to the internet, Ai is a man on a mission, hoping to crack open the oppressive nature of China and share its woes with the world.

The narrative arc chosen by Klayman for “Never Sorry” finds Ai trying to secure justice for an incident where a cop assaulted the artist, requiring brain surgery to ease the ensuing cerebral hemorrhage. Pushing on law enforcement officials to do something about the attack, Ai is instead repelled by bureaucracy, fully aware his charges (with videotaped evidence, reworked into many of his own documentaries) will fall on deaf ears. There’s also time devoted to Ai’s crusade to name the children who died during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a tragedy amplified by shoddy government construction materials and a deceptive body count.

With a subject this provocative, Klayman has plenty of footage to help fill “Never Sorry” with revealing acts of heroism, mischief, and confusion. While artful offerings are provided some concentration, the primary motivation of the movie is to isolate Ai’s seemingly sleepless effort to rattle cages and expose injustice, generating several engrossing sequences of police intervention and interview reflection. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a powerful picture, yet, even more impressively, it treats art like a vessel for communication and meaningful exploration, not just as a stepping stone to cult fame.

Director: Alison Klayman

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