Chinese artist, activist and antagonist Ai Weiwei became a worldwide cause célèbre in April 2011 when he was arrested by authorities at the Beijing airport, detained in an undisclosed location for nearly three months and then released after allegedly confessing to tax evasion. The Sundance-feted documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry concludes shortly after Ai's release; the outspoken artist, for whom interviews with international journalists had essentially been a creative medium like photography or performance, is seen returning home cowed, dismissing the hordes of reporters waiting for him without offering comment.
Without ever articulating a political argument, first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman presents ample evidence that the tax-evasion rap is a cover, tracking how Ai, the son of poet Ai Qing (who was first exiled and then canonized) and a co-designer of the Beijing Olympics stadium (aka the Bird's Nest) became China's best-known artist outside of China — while simultaneously becoming the Chinese government's worst PR nightmare.
The American Klayman moved to China in 2006, essentially at random — she didn't even speak Mandarin. "I wish I could say, you know, 'Oh, I had a good idea that China was the future,' or something like that, but I really just wanted to go abroad somewhere new and learn a new language and try to do journalism," she says.
She met Ai Weiwei in 2008 through her roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was curating a show of Ai's photographs from the decade he lived in New York. While making a documentary to supplement the photography exhibit, Klayman realized she'd stumbled on a character rich enough to sustain a feature-length movie. "To watch him make an artwork or make a sandwich, I felt like it would be something that would open up people's thinking about contemporary China," she says.
Around that time Ai was preparing for two major international shows (at London's Tate Modern and the São Paulo Biennial). He also had planted two distinct thorns in the Chinese establishment's side. After conceptualizing the event's iconic stadium, he boycotted the Beijing Olympics, charging China with manufacturing "a fake smile for foreigners" while using the Games to oppress the Chinese people.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai used multiple media — art installations, video documentaries, Twitter — as he persistently investigated, and questioned the official party line on, student casualties.
Then in 2009, Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify on behalf of fellow earthquake muckraker Tan Zuoren, only to be assaulted by police and prevented from taking the stand. This incident didn't shut him up: Ai continued to tweet and make works about China's lack of transparency in general, and its attempts to shut him up in particular.
Opposition was not exactly new territory for Ai. Klayman traces the evolution of his aesthetic and conceptual interests from deceptively one-note provocations (1996's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which documents exactly what its title says; the photo series Study in Perspective, in which Ai holds up his middle finger in the foreground of snapshots of landmarks like the White House and Tiananmen Square), to more elegant and densely layered recent work like Sunflower Seeds, a field of 100 million hand-painted ceramic replicas stirring up all manner of associations about labor, value and individuality in Ai's rapidly changing homeland.
A valuable primer on how an artist becomes an enemy of the (closed) state he works in, Never Sorry is unexpectedly substantive as a character study. Klayman champions Ai while politely revealing that he's not a saint and, in fact, his gluttonous human appetites (for food, for women) border on self-destructive. This makes for a more vibrant portrait of a life, and ups the film's emotional stakes, particularly as Klayman makes it clear that life, art and activism are not distinct practices for Ai — it's all one body of work.
"It all comes from the same motivation," she says. "Everything is about communication."
The film demonstrates that Ai is a celebrity among young, Twitter-savvy Chinese, who raise their middle fingers in his signature gesture while posing for photos with him. But his impact within China has been greatly diluted by censorship of his blog, and a blackout on coverage of his activities in the domestic media.
Klayman says Ai's documentaries about the government's failure to protect and inform its citizens during and after the 2008 earthquake are somewhat analogous to Spike Lee's epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina — "if Spike Lee wasn't allowed to have his movies in theaters or on television and so he had to distribute them underground.
"Most people, if you stopped them on the street, will not know Ai Weiwei by face or by name," she adds.
There's a startling disconnect between the reverence in which Ai is held internationally and the everyday reality of his life in China, particularly since the end of the period the film covers. Art in Review magazine famously declared Ai the most powerful person in the art world in 2011, but today, more than a year after Ai's release from his mysterious detention, Klayman says the status of his freedom is murkier than ever.
"This entire year we've been looking toward June 22, the year anniversary of his release," Klayman explains. "There were these yearlong bail conditions where they essentially had him on a leash. There was a bargain, like, 'Look. You have these restrictions, but we're gonna lift them in a year, so behave yourself.' He sort of did — he's been on social media, he has done interviews, especially when it's about the various injustices that he continues to experience. But he has been more subdued."
Then, Klayman says, "June 22 came and went and they gave him a piece of paper that said, 'Congratulations, your bail conditions are up.' But he still does not have his passport back. And he's living under this cloud of uncertainty."
A week after my conversation with Klayman, news broke that Ai had lost his appeal in the tax-evasion case, which was based on allegations Klayman called "unsubstantiated." A $2.4 million fine was upheld, which Ai said he would continue to appeal.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In the film, Ai likens himself to a chess player, "waiting for my opponent to make the next move." Given China's continued aggressive play against him, at what point might the artist forfeit the game? What if he were to manage to get his passport back — is he committed to staying in China, or would he get out for good while he could?
"I hope that he still has that choice. I feel like there's uncertainty about his ability to leave or his ability to come back," Klayman says carefully. "But I think his goal is still to remain based in Beijing as a Chinese citizen." She notes that Ai's critiques of China have a potency and a relevance coming from a resident that they might lose were he to become an expatriate.
"But," she acknowledges, "it may get impossible for him to create and to be himself in a total way."
AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY | Directed by Alison Klayman | Sundance Selects | Landmark, Playhouse, Town Center, AMC Atlantic Times Square