On some occasions, inventive documentary filmmaking can really enliven a subject that had little allure to begin with. On others, all the director really need do is aim the camera in the right direction and hit record; as their subject is already endlessly fascinating. The latter is most certainly the case with Alison Klayman’s look at China’s most infamous artist in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012).
Since publicly denouncing the Chinese government over the Beijing Olympics and refusing to attend the event despite having designed the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium, Ai has grown and grown in stature and popularity over the last few years. He has now exhibited around the world, including covering the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. He’s also a bona fide Twitter addict, utilising the social media platform, and his regular blogging, in an attempt to reach the people of his own country and use his art to speak out against the Communist authorities.
For some time, Weiwei’s brio and international acclaim seemed to buy him immunity from the government who may just make him disappear. After seeing a head injury which he sustained at the hands of the police, we come to realise the bravery of the other people who work on his artwork, and who volunteer for the same causes, without the safety of his fame. Of course, his exemption did not last, and Ai was held for 81 days in 2011 on a tax evasion charge.
As we see the work that he’s been doing throughout Never Sorry, it’s very hard not to feel inspired. In recent years he has spearheaded an ongoing investigation to shed light on the devastation caused by the Sichzuan earthquake in 2008. Hundreds of school children died during the disaster, possibly due to shoddy government building work. The people’s enquiry culminated in the publishing of a list, via online video, of the names of all that were lost; the list also adorns Weiwei’s own wall.
Klayman’s Never Sorry deftly manages to capture the intertwined nature of both artist and activist, whilst also attempting to snatch the odd glimpse into the personal life behind them which Weiwei manages to keep more hidden. We get hints of the strained relationship that he has with his mother, and meet his son by a ‘friend’ and not his wife, but our inroads into Weiwei himself are restricted. More importantly, we come to take our understanding of the man by observing the drive and determination that keeps him producing art in spite of everything, or more accurately, because of it.
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