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Chinese artist, activist, and antagonist Ai Weiwei became a worldwide cause célèbre last April when he was arrested by authorities at the Beijing airport, detained in an undisclosed location for nearly three months, and released after allegedly confessing to tax evasion. The Sundance-feted documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (opening July 27 at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas) concludes shortly after Ai's release; the outspoken artist, for whom interviews with international journalists had essentially been a creative medium like photography or performance, is seen returning home cowed and dismissing the hordes of reporters waiting for him without offering comment. Without ever articulating a political argument, first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman presents ample evidence that the tax-evasion rap is a cover, tracking how Ai, the son of poet Ai Qing (who was first exiled and then canonized) and a co-designer of the Olympic Bird's Nest, became China's best-known artist outside of China—while simultaneously becoming the Chinese government's worst PR nightmare.
The American Klayman moved to China in 2006, essentially at random—she didn't even speak Mandarin. "I wish I could say, you know, 'Oh, I had a good idea that China was the future,' or something like that, but I really just wanted to go abroad somewhere new and learn a new language and try to do journalism," she says. She met Ai Weiwei in 2008 through her roommate, Stephanie Tung, who was curating a show of Ai's photographs from the decade he lived in New York. While making a documentary to supplement the photography exhibit, Klayman realized she'd stumbled on a character rich enough to sustain a feature-length movie. "To watch him make an artwork or make a sandwich, I felt like it would be something that would open up people's thinking about contemporary China," she says.
Around that time, Ai was preparing for two major international shows (at the Tate Modern and São Paulo Biennial). He had also planted two distinct thorns in the Chinese establishment's side. After conceptualizing the event's iconic stadium, he boycotted the Beijing Olympics and charged China with manufacturing "a fake smile for foreigners" while using the games to oppress the Chinese people. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai persistently investigated—and questioned the official party line on—student causalities through multiple media: art installations, video documentaries, Twitter. Then, in 2009, Ai traveled to Chengdu to testify on behalf of fellow earthquake muckraker Tan Zuoren only to be assaulted by police and prevented from taking the stand. This incident didn't shut him up—Ai continued to tweet and make work about China's lack of transparency in general and its attempts to shut him up in particular.
Opposition was not exactly new territory for Ai. Klayman traces the evolution of his aesthetic and conceptual interests from deceptively one-note provocations (1996's Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, which documents exactly what it claims to; the photo series Study in Perspective, in which Ai holds up his middle finger in the foreground of snapshots of landmarks like the White House and Tiananmen Square) to more elegant and densely layered recent work like Sunflower Seeds, a field of 100 million hand-painted ceramic replicas stirring up all manner of associations about labor, value, and individuality in Ai's rapidly changing homeland.
A valuable primer on how an artist becomes an enemy of the (closed) state he works in, Never Sorry is unexpectedly substantive as a character study. Klayman champions Ai while politely revealing that he's not a saint, and in fact, his gluttonous human appetites (for food, for women) border on self-destructive. This makes for a more vibrant portrait of a life and ups the emotional stakes of the film, particularly as Klayman makes it clear that life, art, and activism are not distinct practices for Ai—it's all one body of work. "It all comes from the same motivation," she says. "Everything is about communication."
The film demonstrates that Ai is a celebrity among young, Twitter-savvy Chinese, who raise their middle fingers in his signature gesture while posing for photos with him. But his impact within China has been greatly diluted by censorship of his blog and a blackout on coverage of his activities in the domestic media. Klayman says his documentaries about the government's failure to protect and inform its citizens during and after the 2008 earthquake are somewhat analogous to Spike Lee's epic documentary about Hurricane Katrina—"if Spike Lee wasn't allowed to have his movies in theaters or on television, and so he had to distribute them underground," she says. "Most people, if you stopped them on the street, will not know Ai Weiwei by face or by name."
There's a startling disconnect between the reverence in which Ai is held internationally and the everyday reality of his life in China, particularly since the end of the period the film covers. ArtReview magazine famously declared Ai the most powerful person in the art world in 2011, but today, more than a year after Ai's release from his mysterious detention, Klayman says the status of his freedom is murkier than ever.
"This entire year, we've been looking toward June 22, the year anniversary of his release," Klayman explains. "There were these year-long bail conditions where they essentially had him on a leash. There was a bargain, like: 'Look. You have these restrictions, but we're gonna lift them in a year, so behave yourself.' He sort of did. He's been on social media. He has done interviews, especially when it's about the various injustices that he continues to experience. But he has been more subdued."
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