The thing about documentaries, especially art documentaries, is that at their best times they become transformative experiences in bringing art that would otherwise be limited to the masses. A famous conceptual artist or sculptor might only exhibit in one or two museums in a year, and it would cost time and money to see the art, not to mention the effort to do all the research for oneself. Then along comes an artist documentary, to not only give you a portrait of the artist you would never otherwise see, but to show you their work and the thoughts behind it, to give you the reasons better than any museum blurb might be able to show. Documentaries democratize the inherently segregated experiences of ‘fine art’, bringing them to you for the low low price of one movie ticket.
Which is just to say that I find them vital and incredibly interesting in general, but specifically when they tackle an artist as interesting as Ai Weiwei. A Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei exploded onto the international scene in 2008 after designing one of the Olympic structures for the Beijing games and then becoming an outspoken critic of the government’s treatment of Chinese citizens in order to project a unified propaganda front. Since then, he’d become increasingly antagonistic towards Chinese policies as his reputation grew, quickly putting him in danger of state action to silence him.
Much of the movie follows Ai around in the period from 2009 and 2010, as he travels abroad to do installation pieces in famous foreign museums and back in China where he faces increased pressure from the government. His studio is monitored 24/7 by both cameras and government agents, and police hound his movements. In fact, the movie covers an altercation with police where he was beaten by a cop and had to be hospitalized due to complications from his injuries, all while investigating a government-developed building collapse that killed thousands of children. Doing the government’s job for them in making these investigations public became, for a long period of time, his whole project: not specifically one of art but one of social awareness.
Weiwei himself cuts an interesting figure in the film. He has a rough, easygoing teddy bear quality, but behind the jovial nature is someone who seems driven to work to reshape China even at the cost of his safety and privacy. He documents his entire life on blogs and twitter, circumventing the Chinese internet firewall to bring his message global. In fact, much of the movie is told not just through the documentary, but Ai Weiwei’s phone photos and tweets as a sort of running set of signposts about what he was doing while the crews were shooting. He’s obviously driven, but far from perfect, even as he begins to struggle with the cult of personality that forms up around him especially as he becomes more internationally famous. There’s a certain volatility to his actions that feels sometimes desperate, a man fighting against institutions far bigger than him.
More importantly, it doesn’t blink in confronting the reality that China does police freedom of expression to the point of actual violation of human rights. There’s a certain cultural hesitancy in critiquing China these days, perhaps as a response to continued global dependence upon them or perhaps because they have improved in many areas over time. But the reality is that it is still rife with institutional problems and oppression of its citizens for doing things that simply aren’t crimes by our understanding of them. And Ai Weiwei is as outspoken a critic as anyone, trying to make progress even as his peers are jailed for their opinions. The danger is real, and you watch the numbers dwindle over the course of the film.
And ultimately that’s the thing that sticks out most from Never Sorry. Ai Weiwei is fascinating, but he’s an artist fighting an actual fight with real danger and risk against the entire mechanics of one of the biggest governments on Earth. It’s a man-versus-everyone story, the kind of beautifully doomed underdog tale that the world could use more of. Ai Weiwei isn’t just an artist, his activism becomes an inspiration about what it means to fight back against the complacency of oppression, a look at the potential of even very small gestures to affect real global change if the right voice dares to speak up.