Ai Weiwei came to international attention as one of the artistic geniuses behind the Bird’s Nest, the unmistakable stadium unveiled for the Beijing Olympics. But he had spent much of his career before Beijing and almost all of it since openly criticizing the Communist rule of China. Spoiler alert: That stuff can get you imprisoned or killed. Option A wasn’t actually new to Ai: His father, an activist poet, ran afoul of Chairman Mao and was sentenced to years in labor camps with his family in the late 1950s.
The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry indicates just how close to the tree the acorn fell. Perhaps because he’s so beloved worldwide — both for his activism and his art — Ai continues to flip the bird to the People’s Republic, literally: The middle finger is such an identifiable trademark for him that it’s on the movie poster. Never Sorry observes the iconoclast as he unthinkably battles Chinese leadership, accuses police of harassment and does the work the government won’t to identify thousands of students who perished in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. And he chronicles it all on Twitter.
If Ai is not winning, it’s no worse than a draw. He’s still alive, the government caving to pressure to release him after holding the artist three months without charging him, and he even seems to be making a tiny bit of headway toward basic human rights in China. But as he says in the film, “If we don’t push, then there’s nothing happening,” so he understands the consequences.
Like many documentaries, the story far outstrips the filmmaking. Director Alison Klayman is a journalist by training, and that comes through here, with the chapters of Ai Weiwei’s life draped all over each other a little haphazardly. Despite that, this is a great introduction to a larger-than-life figure who speaks truth to power and does so with a bullhorn. COLIN BOYD