China’s most famous dissident Ai Weiwei uses conceptual art and a Twitter feed to challenge the CCP in this 2012 documentary by Alison Klayman. Ai and his team deliberately confront the Chinese government over free speech, police corruption and the Beijing Olympics, showing the world the strength of a smartphone in the hands of a nonconformist.
“There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship,” Ai tells a trove of supporters during one of the movie’s emotionally charged scenes. After tweeting his choice of restaurants in advance, a Ai’s fans assemble to dine with him a street-side table. Police officers recognize Ai and hover relentlessly as the group shares dumplings and offers words of encouragement to the artist. At one point, the police start filming the dinner as if in anticipation of lawlessness, but Ai’s team simply films the police right back.
Like the man himself, this documentary is engaging and relevant from the start, regardless of whether the viewer has any prior knowledge of Chinese politics. Featuring a standard blend of solo interviews with Ai, his teammates, wife, mother and friends, along with front-line footage of his art and activism, "Never Sorry" captures the personal triumphs and emotional struggles of a man whose imperfections make him perfectly relatable.
Resembling a bearded Buddah and espousing the peaceful radicalism of Confucius, Ai Weiwei is at once an iconoclast and a man acutely aware of the limitations of being human. Fighting the Chinese system from within Chinese walls is a game of nerves; one gutsy move could earn Ai a lifetime in prison, due to hazy free speech laws, but one perfectly constructed art piece could be the spark that lights awareness in millions of Chinese citizens.
Exhibited in his work Sunflower Seeds — a massive creation featuring over 100 million handcrafted “sunflower seeds” made from porcelain (a defining Chinese export) — Ai knows that the relationship between the individual and the masses is tenuous yet necessary. The work seems to suggest that while the power of individual expression cannot and should not be ignored, the hope for humanity to improve its shared circumstances lies in collective awareness of the injustices forced upon it.
"Never Sorry" provides a telling glimpse into the daily life of a Chinese citizen who believes in his responsibility to question the injustices of society. Klayman's startlingly intimate portrayal of Ai's activist philosophy held against the backdrop of communism, corruption and mass propaganda is artwork in itself; this is an important movie that is at once entertaining and intellectual, personal and universally applicable.
“Freedom is a pretty strange thing,” Ai says in the film. “Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away. Then, as an individual, you can be more powerful than a whole country.”