SIFF Film Review – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
It will come as no surprise to anyone that the Chinese government is very repressive; you might even describe it as Big-Brother-esque. I am conscious of the struggles of individuals like the blind laywer Chen Guangcheng, but can’t say I ever am too aware of the details of these kinds of battles with the government. My perception of their situations will forever be changed after being put in the center of the struggle in the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
The film follows artist and activist Ai Weiwei as he works on several art exhibits around the world that increasingly raise the tension between himself and the Chinese government, as he cuts through the façade the government has worked to cultivate. Ai Weiwei’s relationship with the Chinese government is a fascinating balance of provocative self-expression and trying to avoid their vague laws against inciting insubordination. It is particularly amazing considering that he gained international fame while working on the 2008 Olympics, only to gain notoriety after denouncing the games as party propaganda. He also went from notorious to an enemy of the state after his criticism of the government over the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
I don’t like to feel ignorant on a subject, but I must admit that before seeing the movie, I was only vaguely aware of Ai Weiwei. For those unfamiliar like me, the film does an excellent job of exploring the art and its provocative message, as well as explaining how Ai Weiwei evolved to reach this point. He appears to be a very intelligent, creative and charismatic fellow; it is easy to see how he has gained widespread popularity. His knowledge of the nuance in the Chinese law is very impressive and appears to be an absolute necessity in his ongoing battle.
It is a bit surreal to see how accurate George Orwell’s predictions were in 1984, but they seem to be playing out in modern day China. I was aware of the censorship, but the film not only put a face to the censorship, but also showed how extensive it is and helped explained how it is a problem. It paints a scary portrait of how dangerous and powerful the Chinese government is, and while we in the United States might complain about our freedoms being taken away, it reinforces how lucky we are to even be able to have that discussion.
At the heart of the film is first-time director Alison Klayman, who does an incredible job sifting through the chaos. Not only was she able to piece together a fascinating narrative, but she also did it while being in the middle of a very fluid situation while everything unfolded in front of her. The access she is given to Ai Weiwei is incredible, as she is exposed to everything in his life—his creation of art exhibits, his clashes with the government, inside his family; there seems to be nothing off limits. Despite her position in the middle of the action, she is able to stealthily work around herself and not make herself a character, such as how Michael Moore does in his films.
The element that separates this documentary from other films is that, in essence, it is a real-life thriller. The film puts you in the heart of the action as police and government officials put Ai Weiwei’s life in danger and attempt to eliminate his means of self expression. The film feels somewhere between traditional documentary with lots of interviews and an undercover spy film, as cameras document everything its subject does—as a matter of his protection. There is a fascinating cat-and-mouse game that occurs between him and the government as he finds new ways of communicating with his supporters—whether through his art, his blog, or his Twitter account—only to have the government attempt to shut them down.
One of the popular goals in documentary filmmaking is to try to remain impartial. There is no question which side this film supports, and that might draw some criticism—but you could argue that the Chinese government wouldn’t participate even if given the opportunity. Additionally, Ai Weiwei is not without his own faults, as you see him have a child outside of his marriage. The portrait of him is raw, and because of that, it feels more honest and compelling. The one real criticism I have is about the balance of the present and the past storylines. Both of them are incredibly engaging, but the transition between them feels a bit wonky at times.
My favorite documentaries are the ones that expose me to a subject I knew nothing about and make me think about my beliefs and views. I love films that challenge me and make me re-evaluate who I am and what I stand for. In this capacity, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a success, and while it didn’t ultimately change my views, the journey was a very exciting ride.
Final Grade: A-
Also, be sure to check out our interview with Alison Klayman from SIFF.