Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Sundance Film Review

Political Protest

Outspoken artist Ai has been imprisoned, put under house arrest and investigated for tax evasion for voicing opinions critical of the Chinese government.

Doc about dissident artist is long on political friction, short on art.

Alison Klayman's doc about a dissident artist is long on political friction, short on art.

PARK CITY — Explaining what all the fuss is about to Americans who don't know his name, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry introduces viewers to a visual artist whose cultural impact in China was great enough that he spent almost three months of 2011 in jail, with two guards watching him at all times. Likely to be popular at fests for its political and new-media angles, it will play well on the small screen.

Bearded and big-bellied, Ai Weiwei emerges as a personality who would be a thorn in any oppressive regime's side. Though perhaps not the type to march anonymously in rallies, he is stubborn and has time on his hands: When a policeman allegedly whacks his head hard enough to require surgery, the artist mounts a campaign of paperwork in as many police offices as possible, filming his interactions at every one.

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The filming is much of the point: Like Warhol 2.0, Ai documents his surroundings obsessively and views Twitter as a necessity. Through a constant online presence, he has become "Teacher Ai" to a legion of followers, and some of his most important art/politics hybrid projects -- like one intent on uncovering facts about the Sichuan earthquake that the government wants buried -- rely on their participation. As we spend time with him in his studios and home, Ai seems authentically driven by a need for more freedom than China is currently offering.

Filmmaker Alison Klayman gives us enough family history to make sense of Ai's reform-mindedness, and spends enough casual time with him to give us a feel for his personality. But she seems much more interested in his political actions -- which, to be fair, are what has kept him in the news -- than in chronicling the development of the art that brought him to prominence.

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She offers a tidy summary of Ai's 1980s stint in the New York art world, and a thorough look at his recent major installation at London's Tate Modern. But as for what came between, those unfamiliar with his work may walk away still feeling clueless.

That may not be inappropriate, though, for a provocateur who these days clearly sees his interaction with the public and their rulers as his magnum opus.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Never Sorry LLC
Director-Director of photography: Alison Klayman
Producers: Alison Klayman, Adam Schlesinger
Executive producers: Karl Katz, Julie Goldman, Andrew Cohen
Music: Ilan Isakov
Editor: Jennifer Fineran
Sales: Cinetic
No rating, 90 minutes