AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY directed by Alison Klayman. A Mongrel Media release. Some subtitles. 91 minutes. Opens Friday (July 27). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
The artist Ai Weiwei helped design Beijing's Olympic stadium and has been celebrated all over the world. He's also put himself and his family in potential danger by taking to Twitter to openly criticize the Chinese government's draconian policies - leading to his detention for 81 days in the spring of 2011.
Alison Klayman's documentary, fresh from highly praised appearances at the Hot Docs and Sundance film festivals, follows Ai's efforts to make art and trouble (sometimes simultaneously). He prepares for a show at the Tate Modern while conducting an investigation into the construction of Chinese schools collapsed by the Sichuan earthquake - which leads to him being assaulted by a police officer and requiring emergency surgery to relieve the resulting swelling in his brain. (He put that on Twitter, too.)
Klayman's sympathetic lens lets us see Ai as a man rather than a symbol, whose puckish wit allows him to make light of the darkest situations. But we're never allowed to forget the risks he's taking by poking fun at a system that doesn't have a sense of humour.
That sense of risk weighs more heavily on Ai as the clock ticks down to his Tate show. The whimsical aspects of his activism fade away; obstinacy and indignation give way to real fury, showing us a man more committed to defiance than perhaps even he himself originally believed. A late-film revelation about Ai's extended family shows us precisely how much he has to lose if he's prevented from returning to China after the Tate show - and how far Chinese authorities are willing to go in retaliation.
It's a David and Goliath situation, viewed with an elegance and an eye for the absurd that nicely reflects Ai's own sensibilities.
Ai's millions of Twitter followers and his resilient spirit make him seem mightier than he is. His ability to reach out to the Chinese people (and the larger world) can be taken away at a moment's notice, as we realize when he disappears without a trace, detained by government authorities without notice or explanation. He emerges physically unharmed but visibly shaken; a shot of him waving to supporters at his home with one hand while holding his pants up with the other serves as a powerful visual metaphor for his time away.
It's exactly the sort of image Ai would never think of himself, because it's about power and intimidation; his work is all about resistance.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry leaves us hoping we'll see more of that work, and soon.