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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 3 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 31
Ai Weiwei documentary nothing to be sorry about
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Ai Weiwei documentary nothing to be sorry about

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY
Opens August 3


Director Alison Klayman was working as a journalist in Beijing when she met Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. Over a period of time, she managed to gain something close to his trust, and the charismatic, if reclusive, artist allowed her to film him and his endeavors over a handful of years.

That's the basic story behind her documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, but as it concerns a figure as internationally lauded as this one, there's far more to it than that. At the same time, as big as this story is, as massive as the themes are, I can't say I know any more about him now than I did beforehand. I can't help but be impressed - what Weiwei is fighting for stirred me to my core, and his fight is one I wholeheartedly endorse - but as a human being he remains an enigma, and on that front I can't help but feel a tiny bit frustrated.

Still, a lot of what Klayman was able to document is stunning. Weiwei, the man behind the magnificent Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium that was the focal point for the 2008 Summer Games, is a fascinating figure, and the lengths he goes to in order to speak his mind and make his opinions known is staggering. His work crafting a memorial for the more than 5,000 children who were lost in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake is mind-blowing, while his aggressively passive attempts to document police intimidation and corruption are something else indeed.

Klayman shows all of this with ease and restraint, allowing all of the footage to speak for itself, whether captured by her own camera or by Weiwei (or one of his devoted pupils). She does not comment - each moment speaks so clearly there really isn't any need for her to do so. As an activist, what this man does, how devoted he is to getting truth out into the world (his Twitter following is second to none) - all of it borders on unfathomable, and the filmmaker showcases this fact with unhurried ease.

But the man himself? His human failings? What drives him? What makes him such an extraordinary, world-renowned artist? I'm not sure I know the answers to those questions. Klayman shows some of his flaws, at least as a husband, but she does so in a way that makes them seem like passing asides not worthy of interest - speed bumps that only hinder the portrait of the artist as a lofty figure worthy of adulation.

This is a problem, of that there is no denying. Most of the great human beings we have celebrated over the centuries had personal failings of one sort of another, and it was in those faults that we are able to grasp a greater understanding of the person as a whole and what it was exactly that made them great in the first place. No one is perfect, and while Klayman's film doesn't remotely suggest Weiwei is, it doesn't spend much time looking for shades of grey.

Still, this documentary is compulsively addicting. Once it starts rolling, once the artist starts digging in his heels and makes his opinions known, it's hard not to come away from the film monumentally impressed. Klayman's portrait could have been more fully developed and definitely could have dug a bit deeper, but it comes close to being essential viewing almost in spite of itself. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry isn't perfect, but I'm not sure it needed to be. A man as complicated and as intriguing as this one is deserving of numerous snapshots, even if the full picture might not ever be developed.

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