Written by: David Brook
Director: Alison Klayman
Screenplay: Alison Klayman
Starring: Ai Weiwei, Danqing Chen, Ying Gao
Producers: Adam Schlesinger, Alison Klayman
Running Time: 85 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I often find it quite difficult to review documentaries. There are two key aspects I tend to consider – the content/subject matter and the presentation/construction. Judging the quality of a documentary by its presentation or construction is straight forward enough – I can tell if it looks good or is satisfyingly structured, but at the same time a documentary can often still be fascinating and engaging if the subject matter is strong enough on its own. The difficulty then comes in the fact that it’s rare that a widely distributed documentary is about something that isn’t innately interesting. There are exceptions and obviously there is more to documentaries than just these factors, but they tend to be the cores that I look at and I often find myself thinking, ‘that film didn’t seem anything special, but it was very interesting’. This makes it quite difficult to write the straight-forward ‘technical breakdown’ type of reviews that I tend to write (i.e. this aspect works, this one doesn’t etc.).
Well, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is kind of one of these films. This isn’t the slick DSLR photographed kind of affair we often get these days and neither is it one of the film-narrative structured docu-thrillers that are as exciting as their fictional counterparts and are becoming big business (Senna raked in the cash in the UK). What it is though is interesting, hugely engaging and fairly rousing.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a portrait of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, best known in the West as being the artistic consultant on the ‘birds nest’ Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics and for his ‘Sunflower Seeds’ installation in the Tate Modern, where 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, made by 1,600 Chinese artisans, were spread across the floor of the hall. Beyond his artwork (yet embedded within most of it), Weiwei is also an activist that is highly critical of the Chinese government and the film mainly explores this aspect of his life and his work. It largely focusses on his work surrounding the Sichuan schools corruption scandal after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where the government was criticised through claims that many died due to the poor construction of schools in the area and they refused to give official figures of the death toll. The film also follows the police violence case Weiwei publicly documented, when he was reportedly attacked by an officer after being detained seemingly only to stop him testifying for a fellow activist/artist.
I used the phrase ‘kind of one of these films’ earlier, because although it’s rough around the edges and not structurally all that interesting, the presentation is actually a perfect fit for its subject matter. Weiwei doesn’t try to hide his grievances with the powers that be and his politically charged work is rarely glossy or superficially beautiful. So with that in mind you can’t really fault Alison Klayman’s frank, straight forward portrayal of the artist. She clearly has a lot of love for him and his work, so the film blatantly supports his viewpoint, although it’s hard to be objective about the Chinese government’s stance on human rights. Saying that, the film is also open about Weiwei’s illegitimate son which for some could be seen as a thorny issue. Weiwei is open about this himself though, so it’s hardly a cutting insight into his darker side.
Weiwei is also prolific in documenting and broadcasting his political views through Twitter and his blog (before it got shut down by the Chinese government), so you could argue that Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is simply recycling information and footage that is already freely distributed, but I guess the point is to get it to a wider audience. I must admit, I didn’t know anything about him before watching the film and afterwards I went straight onto Twitter to sign up to his feed, so in that regard it’s very successful.
What is also successful is the interview footage with Weiwei. It seems that he is generally very open about things so it’s no surprise that he is very frank on camera, but what is effective from a film-watcher’s perspective is how charismatic and endlessly interesting he is to watch. Many artists, when interviewed, can seem pretentious and many activists can seem self-righteous, but Weiwei comes across as honest, passionate and warm. It’s largely his personality that allows the film to breeze by. Yes it’s quite short at just shy of an hour and a half, but I’ve seen many documentaries of that length that have felt like a long, slow journey.
So after my reservations at reviewing documentaries at the start of this piece I guess I’ve had plenty to say about this, so maybe I’m just worrying about nothing. I think it’s the flawed (but much loved by myself) score/rating system that I struggle with when it comes to documentaries, but after the praise I’ve lavished upon Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry I guess four stars is easy to justify. It’s not quite groundbreaking or eye-opening enough to warrant anything higher, but it’s still easy to recommend such a refreshingly open insight into a fascinating man and his life.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is out on 8th October on Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Artificial Eye. I got sent a watermarked screener so I can’t comment on the picture and audio quality of the final release. According to Artificial Eye’s website, the DVD & Blu-Ray will include an interview with director Alison Klayman and a trailer.