It’s art meets activism as a young filmmaker follows Ai Weiwei of China, whose artwork explores individual identity within a world where only country counts. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is the debut documentary of Alison Klayman, who worked as a freelance journalist in China from 2006 to 2010. Klayman serves as director, cinematographer and co-producer of the film.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens with images of Ai and the long-haired cat that’s learned to leap up and flick a door handle so it can run outside into a serene courtyard within the artist’s home/studio complex. If I’d never seen a cat open a door, says Ai, I wouldn’t have known it was possible. For Ai, the difference between cat and human is clear. A cat that opens a door never closes it behind him.
Neither does Ai, who returns to China after living for more than a decade in New York City. The film follows his travels in art circles and everyday settings outside of China and within, noting that artists in China are more isolated by far – and prosecuted when free expression is deemed dangerous to the state.
Ai, now in his mid-50s, lives with his wife on the outskirts of Beijing, but has a young son born to another woman. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” includes reflections from Ai’s brother, mother and wife – plus fellow artists, activists and fans. Ai’s father, poet Ai Qing, died in 1996 — but themes in his poetry, including concern for the common man, run through Ai’s work.
When Ai decides to find and share the names of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it inspires a cadre of volunteers to share the search for transparency amidst totalitarianism. A giant piece of paper listing the young victims’ names lines the room where Ai sits at a computer championing the cause of civil and human rights. Armed with a cell phone, Ai photographs accidental and deliberate encounters with Chinese authorities – then shares them via social media. His motto: Never retreat – retweet.
Several of Ai’s works, many large and quite conceptual, are shown in the film – which also provides a peek at the mechanics of exhibit-making. Klayman filmed the installation of “Sunflower Seeds,” a work featuring 100 million handmade porcelain seeds arranged atop a gallery floor inside Tate Modern in London. It’s a powerful reminder of the ones inside the many and the genesis of tall within the small. “If you don’t act,” says Ai, “the dangers become stronger.”
Note: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is a 91 minute film in English and Mandarin (with English subtitles) released by Sundance Selects. It contains brief frontal nudity and mature language. Click here to explore exhibits of Ai’s work in Washington, D.C. and here to see a related PBS piece.
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Update: A screening of “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is free to Phoenix Art Museum guests at 7pm on Sept. 19 (space is limited) as part of the museum’s “Contemporary Forum Summer Film Series.” Details at www.phxart.org. –8/26/12