On June 1, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry premiered at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The film, directed by American journalist and documentarian Alison Klayman, follows the life of Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei, and was the winner of the Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Prior to the screening, which took place in the museum’s lower-level theater space, a Q&A was held between Klayman and Alexandra Munroe, the Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim. Klayman described the film as an open investigation into Ai’s life and work that “reveals something larger about contemporary China,” and discussed the significant role of Twitter, which Munroe called a “social sculpture” and another “protagonist” of the film.
The 90-minute film, pieced together from two years and 200 hours of footage, begins by providing a back-story of Ai’s life, starting with his formative years, which were spent in exile with his poet father, Ai Qing, who was banished to the farms of northeast China in the 1950s and 60s, after being accused by the government of anti-Communism. There is mention of Ai as one of the founders of the influential art collective Stars Group, and we learn of his 12-year stint in New York (1981–1992). After his return to China to be with his ill father, he becomes part of a group of underground artists in Beijing (later dubbed the “East Village” artists, after the downtown art scene of 1980s New York), with whom he would collaborate on avant-garde projects. We also learn of the groundbreaking exhibition, titled “Fuck Off” (or something like “Uncooperative Attitude” in Chinese) that he co-curated in 2000, which displayed many uncensored, dissident works at a warehouse in Shanghai, but was soon shut down by the authorities.
But the most gripping segments of Never Sorry are, of course, Ai’s various confrontations with Chinese authorities that unravel in front of the camera in real time.
One of the main focuses of the film is the artist’s investigation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed 70,000 people, including over 5,000 schoolchildren. It is believed that the poor, non-earthquake-resistant construction of schoolhouses was largely to blame for the children’s deaths. The total number of deaths, as well as corruption allegations stemming from the sub-standard construction, were immediately covered up by the Chinese government, setting Ai, his team of assistants and volunteers and Klayman and her film crew to go to Chengdu, to document the aftermath and find and publish the names of as many children as possible who died in the earthquake.
Back at their hotel one night—in a moment of gritty realness—Klayman’s camera partially captures the Chengdu police assaulting Ai in his room, presumably to intimidate and deter his unauthorized investigation of the earthquake. Afterwards, having emerged relatively unscathed, Ai uses Twitter to report the confrontation to the whole world, before leaving for Munich for his Haus der Kunst exhibition. There, unexpectedly, he undergoes cranial surgery for an internal hemorrhage—an injury, caused by the attack, which had gone unnoticed.
In a later segment, Ai is seen returning to Chengdu, a year after the incident, to confront his attackers and file a complaint to the police. The film follows the artist as he goes from office to office, dealing with layers of bureaucracy and uninterested officials, tweeting every step of the procedure. Klayman even captures Ai’s roadside scuffles with the police—in a heated scene the artist is seen ripping the sunglasses off the face of one of his former attackers, to expose his face to the camera.
The construction, and subsequent destruction, of Ai’s studio in Shanghai—which took place in late 2010 and early 2011 respectively—is also featured in the film. Ai built the 2,000-square-meter complex on the invitation of the Shanghai municipal government; yet when the studio was completed, the artist was notified by authorities that it would be torn down, with no apparent reason given. But rather than counting his losses, Ai instead decided to throw a party “celebrating” the destruction, inviting people to join via Twitter. Though the artist himself is temporarily placed under house arrest by authorities, preventing him from going to the event, crowds of people are seen attending the party and cooking river crabs, or he xie, which is a Chinese homonym for the phrase “harmonious society”—an oft-used term in Chinese propaganda, and hence a sly jab at the Communist party.
The film also touches briefly on the 81-day detention of Ai, who was apprehended by Chinese authorities in April 2011, for alleged economic crimes. Following international campaigns calling for his release, Ai emerged from custody in late June. As mentioned in the Never Sorry’s Kickstarter page, Ai’s arrest, detention and subsequent release were unexpected happenings that added a not-originally-planned coda to the film’s narrative, questioning how Ai’s projects would evolve in light of the increased danger surrounding his activism.
As a portrait of the artist, Never Sorry, or any single film for that matter, can never hope to capture and present the constantly developing drama in Ai’s life. However it is, more than this, a solid documentary that serves as a platform to discuss “issues of human rights, Internet censorship and freedom of expression,” as envisioned by Klayman. On the film’s website, she also encourages people to join “the digital conversation and empower one another to engage, create, and localize Weiwei’s global cause.” Leading by example, Klayman used the power of social media in order to realize this project: while Never Sorry received crucial funding from American philanthropist and art patron Agnes Gund, as well as the Henry Luce Foundation and the Hazen-Polsky Foundation, a significant portion of the film’s budget was sourced through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. It is a compelling gesture, itself giving credo to the empowering aspect of social media, and a fitting testimony to the reach of Ai’s ideals.