This documentary covers a brief history of art and the controversy of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The film follows Ai to see how social media (mostly Twitter), visual arts, and performing arts communicate and express his opinions. As the film progresses, Chinese authority tries to silence Ai’s criticism by shutting down his blog, beating him, and holding him in secret detention centers. Alison Klayman, the director of this film spent 3 years documenting everything and including Ai without any sort of acting involved.
Supposedly, Ai expresses everything in truth in this documentation of his life. Other than only capturing the inner world of Ai as an artist, blogger, and activist, this film reveals the injustice of the Chinese system.
As one of the major parts of the film, in May 2008, Ai had begun posting photographs of the catastrophic earthquake in the Sichuan Province. Supposedly, after a few months, he began to distance himself from the 2008 Summer Olympics stadium, also known as the “Bird’s Nest,” a project that he had been a creative consultant for.
He described the China Olympics’ efforts as a “pretend smile” and criticized its heavy security based on the amount of assigned military personnel surrounding the stadium. On August 25, in The Guardian, he wrote that China’s quest for gold medals wasn’t important.
“What counts,” Mr. Ai wrote, are “the tens of thousands of lives ruined because of poor construction of schools in Sichuan, because of blood sellers in Henan, because of industrial accidents in Guangdong, and because of the death penalty.
These are the figures that tell the tale of our era.” In addition, Ai actively researched with his creative team to confirm all the names of students, teachers, and many other members of the community lost in the disastrous earthquake. The team was able to compile a large list of names with about 5000 of them being students, supposedly a complete outreach for the community to mourn for the dead and call out the unsympathetic government. In a way, Ai’s intention with this project follows a similar trend movement as the Romanticist era of art, where the emotional appeal is the most crucial part of the art’s plot.
Ms. Klayman couldn’t have known that she would soon help to tell that same tale in her galvanizing documentary, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” In 2008, two years out of college and living in China, Ms. Klayman had been invited to make a short movie pegged to a show of 10,000 photographs Mr. Ai took while living in New York between 1983 and 1993. (A big man, physically and otherwise, who lives and works in a big, big country, Mr. Ai likes to make big art.) Working, for the most part, by herself, she started tagging after Mr. Ai, interviewing him at his home-studio compound on the outskirts of Beijing with the amusing street address “258 Fake” and then trailing him into streets, galleries, restaurants, and police stations.
The project evolved, and Ms. Klayman, perhaps inspired by her monumentally minded subject, ended up with hundreds of hours of material. Some of those visuals were used for a 20-minute piece, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei,” that she made for the PBS show “Frontline” which was broadcast in March 2011. Narrated by Ms. Klayman, it ends after the government destroyed Mr. Ai’s new studio in Shanghai, and she asks him why he’s so fearless. “I’m so fearful,” he counters, squinting at the camera. At the same time, he continues, “If you don’t act, the dangers become stronger.” That same exchange and other moments from the short movie are also in “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” which expands and, without a voice-over, improves on her earlier work, mostly because it contains more background, interviews, and recent events, including his fight against accusations of tax evasion.
With the fight against tax evasion in mind, a Chinese court ruled against Mr. Ai, who had argued that tax authorities were wrong when they raided his home studio last year and swept him away for three highly publicized months. Ms. Klayman’s documentary does not include this latest development, of course, but it is nonetheless extraordinarily up to date. The fluidity and convenience of digital moviemaking tools explain some of its freshness, as does Ms. Klayman’s history as a budding documentarian. It is clear from watching both the feature and its earlier iterations that, while she was learning about Mr. Ai, she was also learning how to tell a visual story. It is easy to think that hanging around Mr. Ai, a brilliant conceptual artist and an equally great mass-media interpolator, played a part in her education.
An intimate portrait of the artist and a blurrier snapshot of the country in which he lives creates and fights, the movie is loaded with smart-talking heads, archival material (look for him as a street portraitist in New York), and fly-on-the-wall scenes of Mr. Ai talking, eating and sending out endless Twitter messages. If it seems as if there were fewer scenes of him making art, it is only because it is no longer possible to see the divide between it and his life. His actions and words explain why that’s the case. So does his art, as Ms. Klayman reveals, including by going behind the scenes of a 2010 exhibition at the Tate Modern in London called “Sunflower Seeds.” For that installation, Mr. Ai and an army of assistants arranged 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds on an enormous gallery floor.
Ai Weiwei’s Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, is a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking sculpture. The thinking behind the work lies in far more than just the idea of walking on it. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production, and the narrative and personal content create a powerful commentary on the human condition. Sunflower Seeds is a vast sculpture that visitors can contemplate at close range on Level 1 or look upon from the Turbine Hall bridge above. Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in society today? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism, and number mean for society, the environment, and the future? The profound resonance, hinged on an axis of sameness and difference, is stark, beautiful, and haunting.