Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry follows an artist’s political and ideological struggles with today’s omnipotent Chinese government. Weiwei navigates these battles through his installation art and photography works that combine ideas of individualism and the collective memory. The artist issues a call for transparency in government and freedom of the human spirit. The film captures the major projects undertaken by Weiwei at his studio in Beijing, FAKE Design. There is a slight echo of Warhol’s 1960’s art factory as other artists come and participate in the creative process. Directed by Alison Klayman, the documentary presents both an exciting and momentous message. She uses stimulating footage of the artist at work, and the camera captures art being created as well as the ideology behind the pieces.

Backpack Installation in Munich

It is the documentarian’s job to draw out the story from the subject matter. Klayman does just that with her probing questions and captivating constructed narrative. By following Weiwei’s 2009 Munich exhibition, ‘So Sorry,’ we see to the heart of his mission as he addresses the Sichuan earthquakes. He asks for transparency in government after the deaths of roughly 5,000 students due to poorly built school buildings that crumbled during the earthquake. The Chinese government refused to acknowledge, address or mourn these student deaths. Weiwei’s backpack installation dwarfs the audience – the camera pans across rows and rows of backpacks arranged on an exterior wall to visually portray a message.

The film then moves on to Weiwei’s documentary project that addresses the unjust jailing of Liu Xiaobo, a political philosopher and friend to the civil rights movement.  Klayman follows the making of Weiwei’s documentary, choosing to screen powerful segments of the actual documentary project. The shaky camera tumbles about dark rooms as police knock at the door and physically assault Weiwei. The climax of the film occurs when Weiwei and his crew are detained at a hotel by police and unable to testify at Xiaobo hearing. Weiwei, as a political artist, addresses restrictive government control and challenges authority through his art.

Sunflower Seeds at Tate

Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation project at the Tate Museum in London impressively communicates his thoughts on individualism and the collective. The exhibit includes over 8 million porcelain sunflower seeds hand painted by Chinese artisan workers. Museum visitors walk on the field of seeds marveling at the vastness; they crunch beneath their feet. A poignant frame captures Weiwei and his young son while the voice over addresses the importance of rights being passed on to the next generation. The camera finds Weiwei in low angle, depicting the massive influence and power he has on the movement. He communicates his hope for democracy and individualism for China through the sunflower seeds; many making up a larger whole.

Weiwei reacts to the political injustices that he experiences through his art. The camera tightly frames his face in extreme close ups as we get to know his easy-going personality and coy sense of humor. His studio home holds at least ten cats, one of which can open doors. While the film takes a hard-hitting look at socialist government policy and intolerance, it does not forget its humor. Klayman blends the right amount of ideology and activism onscreen to portray Weiwei’s stoic and calm qualities that he maintains throughout his profound statements about personal freedoms and indelible rights.

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