"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" ends, surprisingly enough, with its subject apologetic.
It's June 2011, and Ai has just spent 81 days in the brutal hands of Chinese authorities. He's making his way to his modest Beijing home -- his studio having been demolished by the government five months earlier -- surrounded by reporters anxious to hear what the always outspoken artist has to say about his treatment in detention.
"I'm on bail," he tells the international journalists. "I'm sorry, but I can't give any interviews."
|'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'|
|3.5 out of 4 stars|
|Star: Ai Weiwei|
|Director: Alison Klayman|
|Rated: R for some language|
|Running time: 91 minutes|
It seems incredible: The Communists have finally managed to silence Ai Weiwei, the man that one magazine has dubbed the world's most powerful artist.
Not for long, though. Within months, Ai takes to Twitter again. But he's no longer allowed to leave the country, making it more difficult for him to give interviews to outside journalists willing to question the regime, not to mention more difficult to present his works at the top institutions that have regularly hosted them.
This gripping documentary tells us that Ai Weiwei learned the horrors of communism early, firsthand. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was a member of the party but was sentenced to 19 years of "re-education" through forced labor.
Ai quickly became known as a provocateur in his homeland, though not as the activist Westerners see him as. "In China, he was much more known for the quick, controversial gesture," one critic notes. He sees himself more as a chess player than an artist. "My opponent makes a move, I make the next move. Now, I'm waiting for my opponent to make the next move," he explains.
Ai is larger than life, an iconic hero who, in one famous photograph, gave his country the middle finger. Yet, as this important documentary reminds us, he's just one man trying to change a decades-old deadly system. "I've been asking everyone around me for good ideas," he says at one point of his inspiration. Of his many assistants, who will almost entirely sculpt a piece for him, he says, "I prefer to have other people implement my ideas."
Art can be powerful, to be sure, but it's Ai's more direct provocations that have made him unpopular with the authorities. We see the aftermath of a police beating. And he looks beaten spiritually when he's finally released from jail. But it can't be the end of Ai's activism. "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" teaches us, if nothing else, that its subject will never stop speaking truth to power, whether in the form of a 140-character tweet or a large-scale piece of architecture that towers over the tiny men who try to keep him quiet.