Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (2012) ***1/2
Dir. Alison Klayman
Starring Ai WeiWei
Review By Greg Klymkiw
To have four days, four weeks or even four months of someone's life to capture personal and public moments for a documentary film can seem an imposition of slight to major proportions, no matter who the person is and however they might benefit from it. Then again, the more time a filmmaker spends with their subject, this surely demonstrates a considerable degree of faith, commitment and genuine interest in said subject and within that context, imposition of any sort usually takes a backseat.
Director Alison Klayman spent a period of four years to generate this intelligently structured portrait of Chinese artist Ai WeiWei and thanks to this commitment from both filmmaker and subject, the film is a fine window into the life of an artist celebrated worldwide.
And here's the good news - it's not earnest.
Documentaries on artists - more often than not - are plagued with a formal "quality" that renders them as little more than informational (or educational) tools, yet fraught with a fake enthusiasm and often dull narration in a British accent. (How's that for a generalization?)
Happily, Klayman's film gives us information, education, storytelling with a real filmmaking voice, one HELL of a story and a subject the camera absolutely loves. We see Ai WeiWei's method of working, creating, preparing, collaborating and mounting some of the most stunning works of art that one might never have a chance to see - save for on film.
Ai WeiWei himself is a delight - brilliant, funny and an impish rascal. "Charm" is his middle name and it's all genuine. He works it on everyone who populates the film (save for some idiot bureaucrats and cops) and he clearly is working it on the filmmaker and us.
Klayman provides public and private moments - the latter are especially revealing, poignant and often funny.
Most importantly, what happens to Ai WeiWei over the four years is the stuff that all artists in repressive regimes face and we get a first-hand account of how frustrating, paranoia-stricken and even dangerous it can be. The struggle is the story's engine - Ai WeiWei as a human being and his art are the layers. One of the more astounding activities he engages in is the utilization of social media to document his plight with the authorities all over the world. Capturing computer and iPhone action is never any easy feat, but Klayman wends it so seamlessly into the narrative that it's always a vital part of the tale.
Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry is a document for our time and will remain so until the sort of repression people suffer all over the world is wiped out. In this sense, the picture's universal.
"Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry" is available on Blu-Ray/DVD via Mongrel Media.