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The documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" is the perfect marriage of a subject and a filmmaking style both prickly and confrontational, mixing art and politics with humor and personality.
First-time director Alison Klayman's film is about one of the most fascinating artists in the world today, and it's also about one of the most dogged activists in modern China. They're the same man: Ai Weiwei.
Ai came to global prominence after designing the "bird's nest," the stadium that became the signature building of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Before that, he was making a name in China, and in certain art circles elsewhere, with his confrontational works such as his work involving Han dynasty pottery (painting a Coca-Cola logo on one, or having himself photographed dropping another) or his photo in which he flips the bird to Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (To be fair, his "Study in Perspective" series also includes photos in which Ai flips off the White House and the Eiffel Tower. He does get around.)
Klayman catches Ai at the crossroads of artistic and political attention. While he's preparing major international shows (one at the Tate Modern in London, another in São Paulo), he's also fighting Chinese authorities over his crusading work after the Sichuan earthquake, in which 70,000 people were killed. Ai battled bureaucracy to collect the names of the schoolchildren killed in the quake, to agitate for investigations of shoddy school construction.
The most tension-filled moments of Klayman's documentary come when Ai and his friends go to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, to investigate the deaths. Ai's dealings with local police start out comically, as they videotape him while his videographer aims his camera at the police, but then turn harrowing when they raid his hotel room at 3 a.m. and someone punches him in the head.
The other important aspect of Ai's art and activism is his embrace of Twitter. (His motto, shown at the movie's end, is a defiant "Don't retreat, retweet!") The social-media site has allowed Ai a global reach and an instantaneous response time that flustered the Chinese government at least for a time, until the government filed tax-evasion charges that mounted to a $2.4 million bill.
Klayman employing archival footage, interviews and online video captures Ai Weiwei's family history (his father was a poet subjugated under Mao's "re-education" regime), his formative days as a young New York artist, his idiosyncrasies (such as his studio's many cats, including one that can open doors) and foibles (including some scenes in which Ai plays with his son, the product of an extramarital affair). The result is a documentary that mercifully doesn't try to simplify its exploration of a complex person.
'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'
A complex artist and activist gets a documentary worthy of his larger-than-life personality.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for some language.
Running time • 91 minutes; in English and in Mandarin with subtitles.