The best artists — the ones whose work endures and matters and changes the world — are often troublemakers who challenge the status quo. Out of their defiance comes art. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, director Alison Klayman’s riveting documentary of the esteemed Chinese sculptor/painter/iconoclast, is practically a handbook on social rebellion. Born in Beijing in 1957 to a Communist poet who was sentenced to almost 20 years of hard labor under Mao’s regime, Ai grew up distrustful of government and authority and intrigued by the transformative power of artistic expression.
Via interviews with Ai, his colleagues and relatives, the movie paints a portrait of a man with natural-born talents that could have made him rich but who opted for something else. Beginning in 2008, when he helped design the enormous “Bird’s Nest” stadium where the Beijing Olympics were held, Ai began paying attention to the displaced lower classes who were hidden from the world’s media. Instead of the Olympics representing freedom, in his eyes they symbolized autocracy.
That same year, an enormous earthquake in Sichuan killed thousands of children in shoddy schoolhouses built by the government. Ai made a documentary about the disaster, and on the one-year anniversary of the event, he used his website to commemorate the names and birthdays of the 5,212 children who perished. When the government pulled the plug on his blog, he took to Twitter.
The recurring theme in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is of a man on a perpetual hunt for transparency, in his country and abroad. When asked by an interviewer if he fears for his personal safety, Ai responds, “I’m more fearful, and that’s why I act brave. I know the danger is there, and if you don’t act, it becomes stronger.”
That attitude has remained unchanged even as his profile in the international art world has grown along with his reputation as a defiant dissident. Ai’s artwork, which is amply displayed in the film, is often stunning — dizzying sculptures made of wooden stools stacked at impossible angles or bicycles arranged into M.C. Escher-style structures.
But the personality of this amiable and self-deprecating but relentlessly driven man is the film’s most striking aspect. The more noise Ai makes, the greater danger he puts himself in (he has been incarcerated and severely beaten for his work). But the risk and the worldwide attention he has received only fuels his spirit. This fascinating, hugely inspiring movie can only help spread the word.