Review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" (dir. Alison Klayman)

The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which was directed by Alison Klayman and won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a story about an artist and filmmaker, about a tug-of-war between an activist and his government, and a portrait of modern China – but it’s also a story about cats. In the film’s opening sequence, Ai, whose propensity to speak in metaphor is evident throughout the film, discusses the many cats he keeps milling around his home and studio. “One cat out of forty has learned to open the door,” he reports, remarking that if that one cat hadn’t succeeded in opening the door, no one would even know that cats were even capable of opening doors. A charming moment later we see this apparently exceptional cat leap up, open the studio door, and free himself. Welcome to the world of Ai Weiwei.

A portrait of any artist – even one as dynamic and controversial as Ai – is no simple profile to capture, but Klayman’s obvious closeness to her subject and the impressive roster of experts she’s brought on board present a thorough, well-structured chronicle of the artist’s life and times. For Ai, it’s clear from the first frames that every day exists on a public stage: in the international media, on the government surveillance cameras surrounding his home and studios in Beijing, and, most significantly, online. While Never Sorry is an account of how one poet’s son became an international figure for artistic mega-projects and political subversion, it is also a story that explores and champions social media in a way rarely seen on film. From his daily Twitter activity to the “Cao ni ma, zuguo” (Fuck you, motherland) internet meme that launched a thousand gasps, the internet has played – and continues to play – a crucial role in Ai’s international reach as an artist and the practitioner of a broad political message.

The film presents a linear account of Ai’s life, from his family’s years being “re-educated” in Western China to his early artistic career in the New York in the 1980s, the emergence of the Beijing underground art scene from a collective post-Tiananmen depression, and the myriad projects that have ensued over the past few decades. Offering a contemporary narrative touchpoint is Ai’s endeavor to collect the names of all the children killed in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. The collection of names, while affecting as a eulogy for an unspeakable tragedy, seems to drive at the crux of Ai’s message. This project, like so many of his artistic crusades, is about calling for government transparency, examining what is real vs. what is fake, about making bold statements and damning the consequences – no matter how personally damaging they might be.

Clashes between Ai and the Chengdu police offer some of the film’s most compelling footage, providing behind-the-scenes access to the making of Ai Weiwei’s Sichuan-based documentaries Hua Lian Ba Er (Dirty Faces) and Lao Ma Ti Hua (Disturbing the Peace). The altercations suffered during the Sichuan project come to a visual, if not physical climax, with the documentation of a kind of digital camera shoot-off between Klayman and Ai’s assistants and the Chengdu police during a heated confrontation. Ultimately, it’s the momentum of the Sichuan project and ensuing violent entanglements with the Chengdu police that leads the story to the moment Ai is now best known for: his eighty-one day disappearance and detention at the hands of Chinese authorities in 2011.

Birds in flight: flipping in solidarity at the Sundance Awards cenemony

While weaving together the various threads that compose Ai’s story, Klayman employs no singular narrator, but relies on the expertise of a community of artists and scholars who are intimately acquainted with Weiwei and his world, such as Chinese art experts Karen Smith and Philip Tinari, New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, director Gu Changwei, artist Chen Danqing, and Ai Weiwei’s mother and his wife, the artist Lu Qing. This assembly of de facto narrators may not represent a broad range of Chinese or even expat attitudes but speak to a specific intellectual culture of galleries and museums, the spaces that house, but do not necessarily typify, the tangible pieces of Ai’s message.

There’s no denying that Ai Weiwei is a film constructed for non-Chinese audiences whose potentially cursory acquaintance with Ai’s story will be well-served by Klayman’s clear, if occasionally somewhat didactic style of reporting. There may remain, however, a few gaps in the audience’s understanding after the credits roll. The final credits sequence is accompanied by a video of Ai singing along to the Cao Ni Ma song. This Chinese internet sensation that plays on the characters Cao Ni Ma (meaning, ostensibly, “Grass Mud Horse”) being phonetically identical to the characters for “Fuck Your Mother” has come to represent the internet’s usefulness to in expressing superficially-apolitical sentiments below government radar.

The meaning of this epilogue was lost on numerous members of the Sundance audience, baffled that such a trenchant piece of reporting – while certainly light-hearted at moments – would end on such a silly-seeming note. Indeed, Ai’s opening story about his cats is broadly allegorical, but bears even more significant weight when one considers Deng Xiaoping’s famous declaration that “it makes no difference if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” So much of Ai Weiwei’s work and life is devoted to wading through the black and white of ethical and political behavior, not to mention tangling with the often indiscriminate “mouse-catching” of the Chinese government, to present the quote without this deeper context seems somehow to weaken it.

Overall, the Spirit of Defiance award seems highly appropriate for this film that promotes in its subject an undeniable spirit of rebellion. In Ai Weiwei’s world, there’s the rebellion of creation in a country fixed in an endless cycle of destruction and development, the rebellion of using social media to subvert the restraints of local geography, and the thrilling rebellion of an outstretched middle finger – a gesture of solidarity adopted by the Sundance awards ceremony audience – to show the world just what he’s made of.