He helped design the evocative, iconoclastic Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, a work that finally put Ai Weiwei on the map as an international artist. Yet as the Games approached, the Chinese artist-dissident mounted a campaign to boycott the Olympics, calling them hypocritical government propaganda.
"I'm not for the kind of Olympics that . . . tells the ordinary citizens they should not participate," Ai Weiwei says in Philadelphia journalist Alison Klayman's documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
A remarkable, joyous piece of filmmaking, Klayman's feature debut is an intimate, revelatory portrait of an artist whose work unmasks the institutionalized hypocrisy at the heart of China's regime. It's likely to change the way you think about art and politics and the state of China today.
Ai Weiwei's stunning proclamation in 2008 positioned him as one of the most outspoken and well-known dissidents in China and in the next three years he continued to turn up the volume. (In 2011, ArtReview named Ai the most powerful man in art.)
"Typical Chinese critics [of the government] are mild," a Chinese art curator says in Klayman's film. "They don't directly criticize the Communist Party or the government. But Ai Weiwei is different. He uses the most aggressive words to point out society's dark side."
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens a rare, intimate window into his daily life in Beijing - we see him eat dinner with his wife, Lu Qing; discuss his years as an art student in New York; marvel at how one of his 40 cats has learned to manipulate door handles; and fly off to Munich and London for art shows. Klayman skillfully intercuts this footage with news articles, clips from other interviews with Ai Weiwei, and excerpts from the more than a dozen documentary films made by the artist himself.
There are always multiple cameras present in the film - including the ever-present police cameras that keep tabs on Ai Weiwei's movements. He makes the authorities nervous: In one scene, he has a meal with his fans at an outdoor restaurant. By its very nature, the gathering becomes an act of sedition.
Ai Weiwei comes off as a man on a singular mission: to record the life around him before it is erased or distorted by a repressive government terrified by the smallest sign of nonconformity. His primary weapons: video cameras and Twitter.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry has a very definite, strong story arc that begins with the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 that killed more than 68,000 people. Ai Weiwei investigates how thousands of children died needlessly because they were inside shoddy government-built schools. Yet he can't even get an answer to his most basic question - the student death toll. We hear a government official tell him that information is an official secret.
Ai Weiwei's visits to the disaster site take an ominous turn when cops beat him up in his hotel room, causing a brain hemorrhage. Uncowed, he files lawsuit after lawsuit against the police. (They lead nowhere.)
Asked at one point to describe his artistic approach, Ai Weiwei says, "I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move, I make a move."
The government's move comes in April 2011, when Ai Weiwei is made to disappear. Eighty-one days later, he's driven back to his Beijing house a broken man.
On probation for a year and charged with tax evasion, he tells journalists that under terms of his probation he's not allowed to say a word. He won't even speak with Klayman off camera.
Ai Weiwei's probation was lifted in June, but he has yet to turn up the volume again. Perhaps he no longer can.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry ***½ (out of four stars)
Directed by Alison Klayman. With Ai Weiwei, Lu Qing, Tehching Hsieh, Evan Osnos. Distributed by Sundance Selects.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 mins
Parent's guide: R (mature themes, mild violence, disturbing images of earthquake victims)
Playing at: Ritz Five
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or email@example.com.