“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is, on one level, a study in inspiration – what motivates artists and how they spark ideas in other people. A case in point: the serendipitous meeting of first-time filmmaker Alison Klayman and her subject: Ai Weiwei, 55, China’s most celebrated contemporary artist, a political dissident and a grass-roots hero who gained the support of millions with his blog posts and tweets.
Klayman, a young American journalist working in Beijing, stumbled onto the story when her roommate asked her if she’d be interested in making a video of Ai Weiwei’s photographs at a local gallery. “So many of the inherent tensions in modern China were in his story. He’s a perfect bellwether,” said Klayman at a recent press conference, adding that she aimed to represent the diversity of opinion that exists there in addition to introducing people to Ai Weiwei and getting them interested in his case.
Ai Weiwei’s critiques of China’s repressive regime range from photographs of his raised middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square to memorials of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in allegedly shoddy government construction in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He rose to international prominence in 2008 after helping design Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium; afterward he publicly denounced the games as party propaganda.
In the years she filmed (end of 2008-2011), government authorities shut down his blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio and held him in secret detention. In July 2012, he lost his appeal in his tax case; a court in Beijing upheld a $2.4 million fine for tax evasion. Supporters of the artist believe the fine is an attempt by Chinese officials to penalize him for his political activism. “The truth is things are getting worse,” says Klayman. “There is less space for dissent.”
Klayman creates a compelling, textured picture of a fascinating subject, whose personality seems equal parts deadpan and dogged. She shows us shards of his public and private life, glimpses of his contradictions and flaws as well as his determination. Fundamentally, it’s a film about individual courage and expression, and using your voice, Klayman says. “The take-away message is how to be an engaged citizen.”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” opens today in LA.