If you were not familiar with the multimedia artist Ai Weiwei, the title of the new documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” would almost seem like a countercultural taunt, perhaps with a hip-hop undercurrent. The reference is apt in regards to his art, which is at turns edgy agitprop and charmingly cheeky, much like the boundary stretching of early rap music. And with his moony eyes and mischievous grin, Ai Weiwei would not be out-of-place next to the politically-charged likes of the young Run DMC, or even Afrika Bambaataa.
A rebel with a cause, we meet the gregarious Ai Weiwei as both a merry prankster and a serene spirit. The immediate contradiction in his presence is glaring: even with his soft-spoken demeanor, he’s instantly the life of the party, radiating warmth when he modestly speaks of the opportunities found by those that see his art, those that can decipher the punishing oppression that his work exposes. It’s this attitude that makes him more than a multimedia artist, but rather a distinct product of his environment.
‘Never Sorry’ fleshes this out by spending a great deal of screen time showing how, even in restrictive China, he manages to remain heavily plugged in with his fans. It wasn’t long ago when a media figure could be considered “ahead of the curve” by setting up a webpage of their own. Now, Ai Weiwei keeps up with thousands of enthusiastic fans via a frequently-updated Twitter feed, posting his work, his pithy political observations or simply just personal shades of himself, from photos to videos of his everyday life.
Great pains are taken to illustrate that, with this openness to fans, Ai Weiwei is almost creator-owned. Ironically, though considered a subversive by his government, it’s this level of attachment, as well as this level of political engagement, that makes him, if anything, a patriotic symbol via symbiosis. His level of engagement, and his work, establishes Ai Weiwei as an organic evolutionary response to the strength of the people and the ugly tyranny of the Chinese authorities, an extension that feeds upon itself through interactions with fans and political representatives.
This becomes a more concrete connection when Ai Weiwei responds in the wake of a horrific tragedy, an earthquake that levels a major school. The conclusions drawn suggest that the building was poorly fortified, a suspicion fed by the government’s attempts to shut down media access to the story and neglect reporting the number and names of the dead. Revealing the links between a true artist and the person underneath, Ai Weiwei takes it upon himself to make enemies of those in power, simply for the humane act of investigating and finding out the truth about the school’s infrastructure and the names of those lost in the tragedy, names the local government refuses to disclose.
Predictably, this goes over poorly, with Ai Weiwei coping with threats and attacks from a government that answers to no one. It’s this kernel that ends up paying dramatic dividends at the film’s close, where we’re greeted with a natural roadblock to anyone seeking closure. What we don’t realize is that the ‘Never Sorry’ narrative is a ticking time bomb, and that government surveillance intensifies, eventually shutting Ai Weiwei down, banning him from computers, and holding him without explanation.
The implicit suggestion, of course, is that art, and the influence and humanism of great artists, wins out. Pulling Ai Weiwei out of the public eye doesn’t erase his influence, his anarchic spirit and devilish grin spiking his innate human kindness. Any punishment less than death does nothing to stunt his words and sentiments, as he has built an army, mobilized forces who believe in making the right choice whether it flies in the face of government orders or not. ‘Never Sorry’ feels borderline unfinished, as it never draws that line between Ai Weiwei and the generation of successors to his throne that he has inspired. Perhaps it doesn’t have to. Perhaps you’re already one of them. [A-]