It was one of the most talked about films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—provocative, daring, and incredibly enlightening. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry introduced the audience to an artist who has become an iconic figure for his outspoken personality and defiant stance against the Chinese government. The film, created and directed by journalist Alison Klayman, chronicles the creative process and agenda of Ai Weiwei, documenting some of the most politically sensitive and emotionally charged moments of his life to date.
Ai Weiwei, now 54, is depicted as an almost heroic individual who has risked everything for his beliefs. He has battled Chinese authorities, fallen victim to police brutality, been humiliated by public denouncement, and eventually incarcerated for 81 days. But despite such seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ai Weiwei has remained steadfast in his mission for universal human rights and democracy.
Klayman has a surprising amount of access to Weiwei—offering an intimate look at the man behind the controversial art. Klayman spends time with him as he designs the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and subsequently disparages the structure in light of the Chinese government’s policy of displacement. She also highlights the creative process behind, and social implications of, his politically charged work—such as the Tate Modern show. During that show, millions of porcelain sunflower seed replicas were spread across the floor, each representing a life that could bloom into a flower, but is fated to remain forever frozen as a seed. But the focal point of the documentary is Weiwei’s installation that featured the Sichuan province earthquake victims’ names. After authorities refused to release the death toll from the natural disaster, Ai Weiwei began collecting data about the missing, and filming documentaries that detailed the damage. He wanted to expose the government’s blatant disregard for safety and the shoddy construction of public schools that he and many other critics believe led to the death of thousands of children. Eventually, Ai Weiwei published a spreadsheet of roughly 5,000 children who had been killed. His actions led to a fierce confrontation with the Sichuan police, in which he was beaten in the head and given a serious brain injury. While the documentary does not visually capture the incident, sound bites are included.
Social media has proven to be an invaluable tool to Ai Weiwei, who said: “If you don’t publicize it, it’s like it never happened.” In fact, some of his most important projects (like the Sichuan earthquake installation) rely on public participation. Weiwei views Twitter as an indispensable device for exposing the truth to the world. With a constant online presence, he has come to be known as “Teach Ai,” accumulating a devoted legion of followers who have helped promote his message.
“Weiwei’s whole life is his creative practice,” says Klayman. “While he knows the difference between a museum piece and a tweet, he also understands that the artist is the message.”
In the final fifteen minutes of the documentary, Ai Weiwei vanishes. His grieving mother files a missing persons report. His distraught wife is left alone with his two-year old son. The world soon learns that Weiwei was whisked away by authorities as part of a dissident crackdown. During Weiwei’s 81 days of being interrogated at an undisclosed location, people around the world came out to show their support. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets, and even more individuals led online campaigns. “They silence him but his voice grows louder and louder,” read one tweet. At the time, Klayman was back in America working on post-production, but went back to China to chronicle the events. When Weiwei was finally released, he seemed like a different man—quiet, dejected, broken down. Under a strict gag order, Weiwei cannot offer any details about his incarceration, or even make a comment about the nature of the ban. It is an unsettling turn of events. Weiwei even refused to do a Skype interview regarding the documentary.
Klayman says “He’s visited by the cops after every public and media appearance. I get the sense he’s trying to wait it out until his bail conditions are released. But that’s only my guess. With so little transparency in China, figuring out what’s next is like reading tea leaves.”
Though despite all that has transpired, Weiwei’s voice, message, and art live on. He has inspired activist gatherings around the world and called for individuals everywhere to stand up for democratic rights. Weiwei insists that “the civilized world cannot see China as a civilized country if it doesn’t change its own behavior…I don’t believe that these are western values. These are universal values.”
The documentary opened to critical acclaim, receiving a standing ovation and sparking a fervor within its audience, many of whom expressed a willingness to get involved after watching the documentary. The documentary has served as just one more tool for exposing the truth, spreading the message, and hopefully creating a better future for generations to come.