Critique of Film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a 91-minute documentary film about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs the boundaries of art and politics, directed by Alison Klayman. Alison’s shooting last for almost three years from November 2008 to June 2011, covering most of Ai’s significant activities in China and overseas during that period.

As Alison said in an interview, she hopes her audience can get to know Ai as person, “going behind the headlines and the iconography”, and know more about contemporary China. The film also shows individual courage, the power of social media, why rules of law, and transparency and freedom of expression are important to any society.

This is Alison’s first feature film. But she did a good job in storytelling. The film presents all evidence, including her footage, photos, interviews, B-rolls, news videos, music, sound, etc., naturally and with good quality. Although we can hear her raising questions in interviews sometime, it should be categorized as an observational one.

Three scenes left me deep impression. At the 30th minute, the cinematographer was shooting trees along the street on a driving car, which is normal. But the image of fleeting trees gradually turns from black and white to colors to show a switch from the past to the present. Smart.

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Around the 62nd minute, the director gives us the moment that Ai spent with his son. It produces amazingly pleasant and sweet feelings, posing a contrast with his radical activities. It also lays a reasonable foundation for his later words: “I don’t want my next generations still have to fight same things as I did. And I did because my father’s generation didn’t do a good job.” Such arrangement of footage reminds me of the novel The unbearable lightness of being by Milan Kundera, in which the sharp contrast between the characters’ urban life and the idyllic moment with their dog deepens readers’ understanding towards the characters. In the film, the relationship of Ai and his father Ai Qing, Ai and his son, successfully demonstrates another side of Ai’s complex humanity.

What I like most is the analogy Alison made at the very beginning of the film. It is Ai’s chattering at home studio in Beijing. “We have a lot of dogs and cats. Out of the 40 cats, one knows how to open doors. … So I was thinking, if I never met this cat that can open doors, I wouldn’t know cats could open doors.” Then the footage of a cat’s jumping to open the door showed up. In the following film, there is an interview where Ai talks about his earlier experience in New York. “Freedom is a pretty strange thing. Once you’ve experienced it, it remains in your heart and no one can take it away.” He said. I am captivated by this metaphor between that a cat can open doors and people’s right to “freedom” that Ai believes in.

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Coming to the structure, I divided the film into 13 parts (the form is attached at the end). Generally, Alison tells the story in a chronological order from Ai’s work on Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 to his disappearance and release after 81 days in 2011. Meanwhile, she links Ai’s experiences and background with his life in those three years.

Alison uses a lot of interviews with Ai’s family, like his wife, his son’s mother, his younger brother and his mother; some with his friends who are also artists with prestige, like Chen Danqing, Gu Changwei, Hung Huang, Zuoxiaozuzhou; some with his assistants and volunteers; and some with foreign curators and journalists. Also, she selects some of old photos and videos of Ai’s family, some video news, and some of Ai’s documentaries footage. The huge amount of materials can give Alison a lot of work to do when she composed her story.

However, the film proves her efforts. The story is told smoothly and engagingly. In most cases, she uses interviewee’s words to connect different parts of the film. Just like Ai’s expressions through his artistic work, Alison’s arrangement of materials provides a clear and accurate portrait of Ai.

When I browsed Alison’s website, I noticed she is also the executive producer of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentary film Hooligan Sparrow, which tells a similar story about Chinese feminism activist Ye Haiyan. Such similarity makes me believe that Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a film Alison made based on her belief and obeying most people’s values. As Ai Weiwei is about transparency and access, this film should be watched by more audience for its story and good quality.

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perusal of the structure

Wan Huang

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