'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry' Review: Doc Chronicles Freedom Fighter's Battle Against Communist China

It’s fitting that “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” was released on the opening day of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Ai, the film’s subject, gained international recognition for his involvement in designing Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. But he threw away his societal winnings to instead draw attention to the devastating May 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed more than 70,000 Chinese in China’s Sichuan province.

His efforts got him arrested, beaten, censored – and a fan following worthy of a rock star and befitting one of China’s most outspoken freedom fighters.


“Never Sorry,” documents Ai’s life – from his father’s own persecution in China during the rise of Communism, to a decade that Ai spent in New York City during his college years and through today – casing it within the confines of Ai’s exhibits and activism.

It’s a collage of photos, film and tweets, capturing Ai’s activism, art and personal life. Director, producer and cinematographer Alison Klayman’s portrait is a compelling look at a man who is truly risking everything to fight for the country he loves.

Ai’s art is worthy of the celebration it receives. There’s a certain confrontational beauty and vulgarity to it. For example, one of Ai’s works is a Coca-Cola logo painted on an ancient Chinese vase. In another, he videotapes himself smashing a similar ceramic. These represent the destruction that happens in China daily that no one thinks about. The government destroys old buildings and no one stops them. Mao destroyed the art of ancient China. Ai finds worth in it. It’s just one area where he differs drastically from the government he challenges.

He’s often seen flashing the middle finger in front of important Chinese buildings. It’s his M.O., and a bold statement in his suppressed country. It’s understandable why Ai is so upset. The Sichuan earthquake was truly devastating, and Klayman includes footage from the earthquake’s aftermath in her film to illustrate it: desperate children, bloody women, massive destruction. More than 5,000 of the victims were children who perished in poorly built schools. Ai worked to identify the children who died, something the government was uninterested in doing, and saw as a subversive act. Ai posted a list of the children’s names and birthdays on his blog in May 2009, the one-year anniversary of the quake. For such a simple act, his blog was shut down and his home was monitored with cameras.

Ai exists in a world where at any moment he could be snatched. In one scene, Klayman captures a dinner outing, where Ai eats outside with his team. Numerous Chinese stop by to say hello. A few join him for dinner. In China, this is a significant act of defiance. Chinese police show up with cameras rolling. Ai’s crew turns its own cameras on the police and films them filming the dinner. Once, a police cameraman and Ai’s cameraman both train their cameras on each other. Ai calmly eats through it all. When an officer asks him to leave for causing a disturbance, he graciously tells the officer he will move inside after they finish the course they are currently eating.

The filmmakers include footage of Ai being assaulted by police in a hotel. The attack is in the dark, and mostly conveyed through the voices of those involved. Later, Ai filed a complaint with the authorities. His team films it. Ai knows nothing will come of it, and even winks at the camera as he makes his complaint, but as The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos notes, “You can’t just say that the system is flawed. You have to work through the system and show it in all its detail, and that’s the only way you can ultimately make a critique.”

Ai later tweeted, “For each person to earnestly cherish their rights is the essence of civil society. We just made a bit of progress today.”

Ai Weiwei

He’s a hero in his country, and around the world, but he’s not perfect. Interviews with former collegues, friends, his wife, his mother and his lover – the mother of his son – prove it. Of the situation with his wife and son’s mother, Ai said, “It’s not desirable but it happens.” For the second anniversary of the earthquake, Ai and his team asked followers from around the country to read a name from the list aloud and send the recording to them. Ai said that it was like a training for the activists – teaching them how to record, upload and distribute content, while also serving the purpose of honoring the dead children on the second anniversary of their death.

The Chinese government hasn’t just let Ai get away with his actions. Last year, Chinese authorities held Ai in an undisclosed location for 81 days. Not long after being released he was again speaking out. Then the Beijing tax authorities hit him with a huge tab, saying he owed 15 million yuan (more than $2 million) for tax evasion in 2011. In the first 24 hours after the pronouncement, Chinese citizens contributed over one million yuan to help foot the bill. On July 20 of this year, a Chinese court rejected Ai’s appeal, upholding the fine. Such a ruling might crush other artists. I doubt it will stop Ai.

ArtReview magazine named Ai the world’s most powerful artist in 2011. Ai said of the honor that maybe being powerful means to be fragile. But fragility doesn’t mean you’re alone. Even a sheet of paper, stacked with others, cannot be torn. His Tate Modern show in London was an example of that. It was a room covered with millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, representing the diversity in China if you look closely enough. When people walked on it, it represented the suppression of China. But it also represents the sheer overwhelming number of the Chinese commoners. If they rise, no one will be able to stop them.


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