Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2011) feels like Ai Weiwei’s Wikipedia page – and given the artist’s love of the Internet and user-generated information, perhaps that is fitting. Yet unlike Wikipedia, which peppers its biographies with extraneous information, such as the fact that in 2001 William Kwong Yu Yeung named asteroid 83598 Aiweiwei after the artist, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry lacks these personal nuances.
Documentary cinema is a difficult art form to master, and it is even more challenging to produce an artistic and inspiring film about an inspiring artist. Many films, like this one, suffer for they stand in direct comparison with their subject matter. With Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Klayman took on a herculean task with this film for Ai Weiwei himself is the embodiment of our current cultural zeitgeist. Internet savvy, a member of the twitterati, a bold and breathtaking blogger, two parts Andy Warhol to two parts Banksy with a dash of Martin Luther King Jr. heroics and just a pinch of Andy Goldsworthy, he’s nearly more mythical then he is mortal. Recipient of awards from such diverse sources as men’s magazine GQ Germany which gave him the man of the year award in 2009 for Moral Courage, to ArtReview which named him the most powerful artist in 2011,Weiwei’s plethora of international awards, nominations and accolades shows just how wide reaching his art has become.
Weiwei’s artworks beg us to reflect not only upon aesthetic beauty, but also on the personal and historical significance of everything – from sign and signifier to style and shape. Yet unlike so much of western postmodern art, which often exists in this vacuum of tangible reality,Weiwei’s art is fiercely political and questions China’s attitude towards democratic and liberal ideologies whilst being firmly grounded in the real and the physical. Works such as Han Dynasty urn with Coca-Cola Logo or Dropping the Urn: Ceramic Works 5,000 BCE – 2010 CE draw much of their power through their physical juxtaposition of temporalities, expectations and assumptions about what defines art.
It is the very tangible nature of Weiwei’s art that further complicates the movie. No film can properly evoke the magnitude and the mystery of any of his works, as exemplified in his 2010 installation Sunflower Seeds in Tate Modern‘s Turbine Hall, in which each ‘seed’ was actually a hand painted piece of porcelain with almost 100 million of them filling the exhibition space. The sounds made by the seeds as they trickle through your hand and their individual yet repetitive identity – which evoke, especially when filtered through the lens of Chinese identity, both assembly line products and the Terracotta soldiers – are lost in Klayman’s depiction.
Watch Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds
Though Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry spends a good deal of time exploring many of Ai Weiwei’s pieces, it also chronicles his time in New York during the early 1980s, his family life, particularly focusing on how his father the poet Ai Qing was treated by the Chinese government, his relationship with his young son and the events surrounding his near three month detention at the hands of the Chinese government for what they call ‘tax evasion’. Nearly each one of these topics is rich enough to warrant their own film, yet Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, perhaps too ambitiously, attempts to cram all of them into the rather short 91-minute running time.
The world of an artist is always fascinating. Simple fly-on-the-wall observations of the daily activities of artists can give us wonderful insight into their works. Yet Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is almost entirely devoid of this; much of the documentary relies on interviews, or even more bizarrely, the filming of interviews for print media. This places barriers between the viewer and the subject as every interaction is filtered through numerous focal points. Klayman even inserts Ai Weiwei’s Twitter feed onto the screen, and this attempt to modernise the documentary isn’t particularly successful. The tacky and distracting image of the tweet being ‘written’ as well as the fact that the director has selected the tweet, rob it of its power. The film effectively becomes a press release rather than a meaningful insight into Weiwei’s character and identity.
The most enthralling moment of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is when Ai Weiwei’s mother yells at him and a friend for getting ice cream bars from the store, claiming they don’t need to eat those every week. Weiwei almost instantly retorts in a childish manner that it’s just ‘one ice cream’. This moment stands out as the one time Weiwei is a person rather then a performer. Granted, he quickly recovers his composure and proclaims some platitude about only living once, but it is then that this film shines. For it uncovers a more honest picture about who Ai Weiwei may be as an individual, beneath the weighty significance we have placed upon him. He is a cultural sacrifice, an artist that pushes the envelope way beyond its borders by endlessly performing one man’s struggle for social liberty. He is the voice, the face and the name of the fight, and such an identity must cause the reality of his personhood to wither. He is that aforementioned symbol and brand to such an extent that he has lost his individuality and has become a projection of what we expect him to be.
Yet I have the feeling that this was not Klayman’s intention. Her intention it seems was to introduce the world to Weiwei in an easily digestible and factual documentary that eschews form for content. In that it is a marvelous success: it leaves the viewer wanting to know more, and helps point them down the avenues they may walk if they are willing to learn. However as an artistic piece in its own right, something it must surely be judged for, it falls short of the mark.