It’s impossible not to watch Ai Weiwei, dubbed by some as the “Chinese Andy Warhol,” tell his motherland to eff right on off without thinking one thing first and foremost: That dude has got some Buddha-sized stones. Although Ai may possess the street-art cred and pop culture popularity of Warhol, paintings of a Campbell’s soup can never inspired fear in the heart of an oppressive regime; oh, and nobody ever gave Warhol a beating that made his brain bleed for challenging authority.
Documentarian Alison Klayman’s immersive biography, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is stunning in its revelation of a man with the potential to dynamically change a rigid nation and none of the haughty pomposity that should accompany such potential. Seemingly nothing was off limits to Klayman, who managed to detail elements both personal (he has a young son with a woman other than his wife) and public (his savage encounter with Chinese police). The end result is the portrait of an activist with the grace of an artist.
Beginning with Ai’s inclusion on designing “The Bird’s Nest” for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the genius, seemingly disguised in the body of a pizza delivery man, rocketed to international acclaim. He was one of the first to fully embrace social media within China, leveraging his burgeoning fame to hold those in power accountable. When the government failed to release the number of children killed due to shoddy, or “tofu,” construction during the Sichuan earthquake, Ai spent months networking to arrive at a number. And once there, he created a sprawling monument composed of more than 5,000 colorful backpacks.
You do not do that in China. Ai recorded the night the authorities finally came for him; his agony in the wake of being brutally struck in the head was eventually tweeted to thousands of followers. The film follows not only his response to this incident, but his astoundingly humble reaction to becoming a man fans call “Ai God.” In Ai there is a sort of Americanized resistance that is familiarly charming. Klayman’s unobtrusive, uncontrolled narrative endears her central figure so much that when the boisterous, no-holds-barred hero is muted by torture from government officials, it’s genuinely heartbreaking.
Never Sorry is fascinating, which is the adjective for which documentaries aspire. But it isn’t quite transcendent, stumbling a bit with boring Art 101 history segments about Ai’s early years and showcasing a few too many talking heads we care nothing about telling us what is already evident to us without their “expert opinions.” Still, there is a lot to ponder, from the fact that Ai no longer actually makes the art himself, he has the work done for him by others, to what could possibly be next for a mostly ordinary guy with the weight of billions on his back.
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.