Edward Said describes the intellectual “as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.” Alison Klaymen’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shows us what that looks like in practice. Her documentary follows the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei as he and his team prepare for exhibitions in Munich and London; document the aftermath of the 2008 Lunggu (“Sichuan”) earthquake; and deal with the demolition of Ai’s Shanghai studio and his incommunicado detainment by Chinese authorities in 2011.
Ai’s father, the famous poet Ai Qing, had the distinction of being jailed by both Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government and by the communist government of Mao Zedong, despite Qing’s membership in the Communist Party. Weiwei grew up in the forced labor camp his father was sent to by Mao. As a young man he studied at the Beijing Film Academy and lived in New York City for twelve years.
Ai rose to prominence in the West after helping design the Beijing National Stadium—the “Bird’s Nest”—then coming out strongly against the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as “this kind of fake smile which is disgusting.” However, he rose to prominence within China because of his work after the 2008 Lunggu earthquake. Along with another artist he spearheaded a volunteer effort to document and release the names of some 5000 schoolchildren who were killed when their poorly-built school buildings collapsed—statistics the local government had refused to release. His criticism of the Chinese government’s secrecy, corruption, and authoritarianism have only increased since.
Klaymen shows Ai not only as a visual artist and photographer but also as a documentarian, art curator, social media activist, journalist, and human rights advocate. The portrait that emerges is of something increasingly rare in the English-speaking world: a true public intellectual, unbounded by narrow professional or disciplinary boundaries and unafraid of the consequences of truth-telling.
That truth-telling is on-screen throughout the film, but Klaymen manages to give Ai’s visual art space to breath and to speak for itself apart from his politics. For example, Ai smashed a 2000-year-old Chinese pot in his photo-triptych “Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn” (1995). One of Ai’s early patrons in New York interprets this on-screen as representing Ai’s desire to break with the past and create something new. Meanwhile a New York Times correspondent interprets it as a statement about the destruction of Chinese culture in pursuit of modernization. The documentary itself leaves the question open.
Even as she refuses to impose a static meaning on Ai’s work Klaymen shows how his artistic work and his political activism feed off one another. One is struck by the beauty of the composition when, for example, Ai documents his stay in a Munich hospital in 2008 after a blow from a Chengdu police officer left him with a cerebral hemorrhage that nearly killed him, or when he photographs the politically-motivated demolition of his Shanghai studio in 2011. And one cannot help but marvel at the utopian public space his installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds created at London’s Tate Modern in 2010—that is, before the museum banish the public to a viewing gallery over concerns they might breathe in porcelain dust.
There are points where the film covers ground that might be disorienting to viewers unfamiliar with modern Chinese history and politics—the Chinese Civil War, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Charter 08, and the Liu Xiaobo case. The film offers little historical background, but these events are mentioned only briefly and always within context. Any viewer willing to ignore unfamiliar references should still be able to understand and enjoy the film.
In fact there are many ways this defiant portrait of Ai Weiwei says more about our country than about his. The United States has had an embargo against Cuba for the past half century. Meanwhile China—which detains artists in Beijing for 81 days incommunicado; tortures nuns in Tibet with electric cattle prods; regularly opens fire on ethnic minorities who dare to protest; and covers up the death of thousands of schoolchildren from shoddy government construction—is granted Most Favored Nation trade status. China is, in fact, the United States’ largest import trading partner, our third-largest export trading partner, and the owner of 14 percent of our external debt.
The photograph that appears on Never Sorry’s promotional materials is of Ai Weiwei flipping off Tiananmen Square, from his “Study in Perspective” (1995-2003) series. But there’s another less well-known photograph in that series that shouldn’t surprise us: Ai flipping off the White House.