Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Alison Klayman's documentary opens with a stark shot of the gate of Ai Weiwei's home and studio, a shut steel slab in an anonymous brick wall, the smaller door in the middle also closed. It's arresting, the whole house-arrest thing - Ai Weiwei almost inevitably described as "artist and dissident" as if the two were traditionally seperate. Then into that semantic, semiotic, taxonomic difficulty comes that phrase with which this review opened, "Alison Klayman's documentary".

Authorship and observation and subject are the three ingredients of documentary. Who is seeing and how they see and what they see, and what we see is blurring - there is a moment where Ai Weiwei is on Twitter discussing the act of reporting an incident that occured on camera to two Police officers who are themselves recording the report in their systems (Ai remarks "by law they have to take two persons to write this down.") while one of his crew records the event on camera while a further policeman records the conversation with another hand-held videocamera - "qui ipso custodes" was never quite so intermediated.

There are moments, and they are fine moments: unremarked upon, a pair of marble-sculpted CCTV cameras; Ai, talking on the phone about 2010's Nobel Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo, walking through London to do press for his 'sunflower seeds' in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, reflected in the window of the Tesco Express on George Street; the works themselves, combative, compelling.

Yet moments do not a film make, nor a story. Never Sorry is telling one, and doing so ably, even well, but recursions to Twitter do not constitute invention. There are talking heads and there is archive material and there are tweets on screen, sometimes subsequently composited and sometimes filmed directly, that near-moiré flicker of not-quite synchronised refresh rates. There is phone footage and film footage and video footage and never a split screen or an overlap or a frame within a frame - we see events and then photos of the events but never a point where the film says, out loud, "this photo was taken here," and when one considers the opportunites in perspective afforded by forms being filled in as the complainant watches and records and is recorded and those recorders are themselves documented - a sequence in which Weiwei and his cohort and his lawyers attempt to file 15 identical sets of charges in 15 locations should not be a sequence but an experiment in parallelism.

For all its faith in crowdsourcing and communal action and hashtags (it closes with one to 'continue the discussion') it never breaks from one lens, pointing at one thing. It cuts back and forth, at times, in these parenthetic stacks of observation, it changes author too - segments of Hua Lian Ba'Er, Ai Weiwei's documentary about trying to find the number of children killed by the earthquake, are presented; moments too from Lao Ma Ti Hua about his attempts to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, another earthquake activist. There are moments of other people's interviews, of rolling news channels and so on, but we are always watching from one place.

It's not bad, far from it, but it's not brilliant. Weiwei is such a fascinating subject that even a documentary that never seems to stray into the experimental is compelling, but white text on a black screen does not a revolution make. It's well subtitled, on occasion well intertitled, but it's infrequent that one has the works of art depicted named or identified - we meet the technical staff that realise the works, talking about themselves as "hired assassins", the unseen sculptors and carvers and wood-workers and fork-lift drivers and masons and interviewers and tweeters and videographers that follow Ai's pointing finger. It's that following, pun-intended, that one assumes is part of the problem.

It's also, ultimately, the problem with Klayman's documentary. It's well-made, detailed and deep and technically proficient. Ilon Isakov's music is helpful without tending to the obtrusive, the various interviews and the narrative are well-presented, but it just follows formulaically - it never feels contentious or problematic or playful as a film - and at that is a poor reflection of its subject.

Reviewed on: 02 Aug 2012
Share this with others on...
Renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has garnered international attention as much for his ambitious artwork as his political provocations and increasingly public clashes with the Chinese government.
Amazon link

Director: Alison Klayman

Starring: Changwei Gu, Ai Weiwei, Evan Osnos, Ying Gao, Tehching Hsieh, Huang Hung, Zuzhou Zuoxiao, Yanping Liu, Danqing Chen, Inserk Yang

Year: 2011

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US, China

Search database: