Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry unavoidably plays like an unfinished film. Its subject—the Chinese art-world celebrity and political dissident Ai Weiwei—made headlines a week before its U.S. release by losing a court appeal concerning tax-evasion charges, charges clearly filed in an attempt to silence him. It was the latest development in a chapter of Ai’s life that began with an 81-day disappearance in 2011 following his detention by the Chinese police. Director Alison Klayman barely has room for those dramatic developments at the end of Never Sorry, and the film’s conclusion consequently feels rushed, and its narrative truncated. It’s an unavoidable peril of telling a story that’s still in progress, but Klayman captures the earlier parts of that story so compellingly that the finale’s “to be continued” quality ends up playing into the film’s unspoken goal: raising awareness of one man’s ongoing attempts to better the world through art.
Puckish by temperament, Falstaffian by build, Ai first gained worldwide attention for helping design Beijing National Stadium—the structure also known as “The Bird’s Nest,” which served as the nucleus of the 2008 Summer Olympics—then denouncing the games as a propaganda show and critiquing its displacement of Beijing’s underclass, all via the Western media. Those statements made him a subject of state scrutiny, and that scrutiny in turn became a central element of his art. Never Sorry shows the surveillance cameras police trained on Ai’s house, then the sculptures Ai made out of cameras as a wordless commentary on living under the government’s watchful eye. Asked what kind of artist he considers himself, he likens himself to a chess player: “My opponent makes a move. I make a move.”
The conflict gets heated at times. Beaten by the police in a midnight raid on his hotel room, while trying to support a fellow dissident—a raid Ai captured on camera and used in a self-distributed documentary of his own—Ai developed a life-threatening brain hemorrhage. His attempts to get the authorities to acknowledge their role in his injuries allows Klayman to tour the sometimes-terrifying world of Chinese bureaucracy, capturing other incidents of violence and, more often, intimidation created by a sense that the police are always present in some way. The film captures the oppression well, balancing it with a fully developed of portrait of who Ai is, as an artist and a man. It also conveys what makes Ai’s art so effective and sometimes shocking, like a genuine Neolithic vase on which Ai has painted a Coca-Cola logo. A wall commemorating the students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that simply lists the dead is moving. But it’s the story behind the list that makes the work powerful. Putting more lucrative work on hold, Ai traveled to Sichuan to interview survivors and track down the names and birthdays of more than 5,000 children killed in the earthquake in large part thanks to shoddy “tofu” building methods, names a government terrified of transparency refused to release.
And for as much as Never Sorry reveals about its central subject, it reveals just as much about the place where he lives, and the way demands for freedom find methods to limbo under oppression. For Ai, that means taking his case to the Internet, first via a blog, and when that got shut down, via Twitter. Recognizing that he’s always watched, he turns his life into a production. Unable to get recognition for the Sichuan dead in his own country, he covers the outside of a German museum in backpacks of the sort worn by the students. One move follows another in a game Ai plays with the confidence of one who believes truth and beauty will help him prevail.