[With the film opening in limited theatrical release in Canada and the U.S. tomorrow, we revisit our review from this year's HotDocs.]
A common phrase on the internet, particularly in social media circles is "Pictures, or it didn't happen." This certainly treads close enough to the general ethos of documentary filmmaking to make Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry about the most appropriate film to kick off a documentary film festival in some time. Maybe of all time. And It certainly does not hurt that the film is quite excellent.
Artist cum political activist Ai Wei Wei has been giving the middle figure (both figuratively and literally) to the Chinese government for many years, and is considered by many to be the most blunt (and maybe the most effective) artist/intellectual 'actively working' - a euphemism for not incarcerated by the state - in modern China. His high international reputation is perhaps acting as a shield. Ai Wei Wei played a large role in the design of the 2008 Olympic Beijing National Stadium ("The Birds Nest") before actively coming out against the Olympics in China on the grounds of hypocrisy of the government for forcibly evicting the poor out of the area to put on a face for the rest of the world during the games. Wei Wei looks like a big cuddly teddy bear, and carries himself in a humble, slightly aloof yet completely engaging, fashion that can hyper-shift to emboldened critic if the subject of the transparency of the Government of the People's Republic of China is raised. And it is always raised, here. He is never without a concise sound-bite ("There is no sport more graceful than throwing stones at authority.") and his political art is both interesting and easily accessible.
Director Alison Klayman has incredible access to the artist during the past few years which encompassed his Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, as well as the demolition of Ai Wei Wei's Shanghai studio at the hands of the government, the police-assault on his person in Chengdu in 2009 (and his Michael Moore-ish attempts to receive due process in filing charges with the Chendgu police) before an 81 day imprisonment (and subsequent muzzle-probation) in 2011. She also lays out his history, including a decade-long stint studying abroad in New York City in the 1980s. His 2009 exploits in publicizing the Sichuan Earthquake deaths of thousands of school children due to the collapse of shoddily constructed schools is contrasted with both the fathers and sons of China from the cultural revolution to his own son (from sexual relations with a woman who was not Ai Wei Wei's wife.)
Ultimately, Never Sorry showcases the power of Twitter in the here and now of China and its utilization in modern activism, communication, and social justice. Like the Berlin Wall in 1993, the great Fire-Wall of China should come down if the country is to ever achieve any sort of individualism and actual freedom. But the film does highlight the paradox, or the shift in China over the past 20 years in allowing someone like Ai Wei Wei to function at the level he does: the large collection of people who help with his art, and ultimately the thousands that follow him on social media despite the imprisonment of a number of current liberal thinkers and artists in China. A social activism documentary, an often funny character study, and an ode to the power of the documentary and art, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry hits all the bases and achieves a sort of grace, throwing stones.
The film opens in Toronto, New York, San Francisco, Bethesda, MD, and Washington, DC on July 27 before expanding in the U.S. in the following weeks. Check the official site -- linked below -- for theaters and playdates.