Tumultuous times tend to inspire profound and great works of art. Cinephiles will instinctively recall Orson Wells’ wonderfully insightful monologue in The Third Man. In it he eloquently equates an era of peace with the invention of the cuckoo clock and a despondent era with the Renaissance. Wells’ comparison still resonates today. Art reveals a lot in a person or nation. It reveals a tenacity and an unerring resilience to not be forgotten by time. In Ai Weiwei‘s instance, presented in the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, his art strives to achieve change and he hopes to capture the attention of Chinese citizens and hopes they are inspired by his works of art.
But that isn’t so easy to do. Weiwei, currently on house arrest and 24 hour video surveillance, had to endure many atrocities courtesy of Chinese government (bashed in the head by officers and forced into hard labor camp). To rise to prominence like he has done, one has to be able to turn anger into something positive. Other revolutionaries (yes, it is appropriate to label Weiwei as a modern day revolutionary) aren’t capable of bearing their anger nearly as we’ll as Weiwei is. He knows the system in which his life is governed is monumentally flawed, but he also realizes that one has to work through the system and show it in all of its detail, and ultimately this is the only way a critique can be made. It is an intellectual approach to take in a field that requires one to be an animal.
Creating art amidst a tyrannical and ruthless government that is hellbent on oppressing everything it’s citizens attempt can be seen as a remedy of sorts. Such art can ease the pain of suffering souls and broken hearts. In 2008 Weiwei embarked on his most ambitious project. It consisted of him gathering as many names possible of the students who died in the 2008 earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people. This is the kind of art he creates. But maybe the most glaring trait he harbors is that he is ready to donate his life to activism in order to obtain a freedom and an equality that have been long-running elusive ideals for the Chinese populace.
Ai Weiwei is an advocate for social justice. That may not sound too impressive, but living in contemporary China that means a lot. He does all he can to make Chinese citizens aware that change must occur immediately. He blogs about it and tweets about it, making him an approachable revolutionary, one that is less severe and stuffy than his precursors. It is an odd happening that China, who suppresses all individuality and monitors the majority of online activity going on amongst its citizens, could produce such a world renowned revolutionary in Weiwei. Such an occurrence allows the documentary’s audience to marvel at a glorious paradox: stifling government the cause of an activist’s intelligence and artistic prowess.
In China, Weiwei’s an iconic symbol of popular resistance. The documentary exemplifies his rockstar status, making it blatant that he is highly regarded by the youth and intellectuals, not only in China but in parts of Europe and the Americas. He began making waves as a college student when he was part of a Chinese intellectual group that traveled to New York City in 1983 with a golden opportunity to study abroad (prior to ’83 China didn’t permit their citizens to study abroad). Those around Weiwei at that time discuss in the documentary the satire that was beginning to percolate in Weiwei’s early works. But when the ’90s soon approached Weiwei and other intellectuals in America decided to go back to China. The riots in Tenenman Square ignited and provoked the Chinese government to clamp down on all kinds of expression. This oppression prompted Weiwei and other Chinese artists to create an underground art community, which admired the likes of Warhol and other contemporaries.
Director Alison Klayman believes it is imperative to dwell on every aspect of Weiwei’s journey to become a famous activist. At times the documentary slackens as it highlights the minutest of details surrounding Weiwei. While this is happening the documentary should be focusing on his outrageous artistic creations. We know that he resists the government’s unerring sense to control the populace, incites the overthrow of China’s political power and responds to every political act. But we would love to also know is how he is able to construct such pieces of art, such as multiple contorted chairs fastened together to create an enormous circle or his intent on smashing Neolithic vases from ancient China.
Some will say, though, that Weiwei is an activist before an artist. That statement is true. But the documentary throws away precious opportunities to enlighten its audience about WeiWei’s works. The man is a contemporary genius, and the documentary provides adequate amount of information to support that claim but to the detriment of his artistic works, which, in the end, individuals, not only in China but worldwide, derive from them motivation and hope.
HIGH-DEF PICTURE:Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is shot mostly with cheap cameras. Unlike other mainstream docs this year, director Alison Klayman uses inexpensive gear while she is following Weiwei around China and the quality doesn’t replicate the year’s other docs. But the diminished quality doesn’t disrupt the viewing experience because Klayman grabs other materials from actual news footage and while she is interviewing people she is filming with high quality cameras. HD is at its finest when Klayman is filming Weiwei’s art exhibits, where she is able to capture the smallest details of his pieces.
Interviews: Some of Weiwei’s artistic and political supporters are interviewed, but the most fun comes when Weiwei himself is interviewed.
Also filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes.
Movie: *** out of ***** HD: ***1/2 out of ***** Special Features: ***1/2 out of *****