I've been sitting here with three tabs of dictionary dot com open in front of me and an overflowing ashtray. I've been trying to write a review of the Alison Klayman's documentary Never Sorry, a film about China's most famous contemporary artist Ai Weiwei.
Usually it isn't this hard. The problem is my flatmate.
My flatmate works in documentary film. He's been standing with his arms folded in the kitchen glaring at me. He has told me he me in no uncertain terms that he absolutely doesn't approve of me writing film reviews. He has said “It will not be a credible review, you don't know what you're talking about” He's right. I didn't go to film school, I didn't specialize in documentary film studies and so I probably cannot give an appropriate and credible review to this documentary as a film.
I suppose what I can offer is the film from the point of view of someone who is already pretty familiar with the work of Ai Weiwei. I mean... how many other contemporary Chinese artists can anyone name? I always feel a little anxious when a month or so goes past without his face being in the papers. I start to worry “what have they done to him now”?! Ai is as famous for his activism as he is for his artwork. He himself is a prolific documentary maker as well as an avid Tweeter and Blogger. When watching Never Sorry we get the feeling that Ai is embracing the chance of yet another avenue to communicate to a wider audience.
The film follows Ai as he prepares for several large scale European exhibitions including his famous Turbine Hall installation in London's Tate Modern. It also documents his increasing clashes with the Chinese authorities. His artwork, largely manufactured by teams of assistants (so called “hired assassins”), act as pieces that he moves in a conceptual game of chess against the Chinese State. When the police film him, Weiwei and his team film them right back. When the authorities order the demolition of his Bejing studio, Weiwei organises a demolition party to celebrate. He is an alchemist of sorts, turning the shit that he's fed into gold as best he can.
Ai's efforts to challenge the Chinese government and change public opinion have come at a cost to his own safety and freedom. The film documents how he suffered brain swelling from blows to his head inflicted by the police, as well as being placed under house arrest and then detained in an undisclosed place for 81 days.
The film provides an engaging insight into the life of an artist who is at the eye of a political and cultural storm. Klayman manages to avoid being overly reverent and Ai is portrayed as a charismatic and candid character, though not entirely flawless. The film itself is non linear and there is a sense that it tries to deal with all elements of Ai Weiwei's complex situation without ever properly delving into any one aspect. As an artist I would have preferred more information on his artistic practice, his early work and life in New York is barely touched upon. As a nosey parker I would have enjoyed a bit more delving into his private life and airing of dirty linen. However, the film exists not as a traditional artist doc but more as another tool of communication; it serves as part of the cause. And in this part, it is entirely successful; there will surely be more people in the future opening their Guardian culture supplements and thinking “Uh-oh.... I haven't read anything about Ai Weiwei in a while....”