A just cause means never having to say you’re sorry

As the most internationally recognised Chinese contemporary artist to date, Ai Weiwei has been increasingly portrayed as a latter-day Václav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose names also became synonymous with political dissidence and whose activism fuelled their creative work. Indeed, in May this year, Ai was one of the first winners of the posthumously inaugurated Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, and the Chinese authorities are unlikely to have been amused by the fact that the award deliberately resembled the ‘Goddess of Democracy’, the makeshift statue erected by pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But as Alison Klayman’s documentary repeatedly demonstrates, Ai has long delighted in literally and metaphorically giving the finger to the Chinese government, often via philosophical tweets such as: “There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.” Although American-born, Chinese-based journalist Klayman, who regularly filmed Ai between 2009 and 2011, does delve into Ai’s past to bring newcomers up to speed (he initially studied at the Beijing Film Academy alongside Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou), she devotes most screen time to his then-current projects. Ai is shown preparing large-scale shows in Munich in 2009, London in 2010 (the famous Sunflower Seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) and working on an ongoing project to document the thousands of school-age victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The latter takes many forms: from the sociological (using crowd-sourcing techniques both to gather data and to verbally commemorate individual victims) to the spectacular (a gigantic Munich installation in which 9,000 rucksacks, like those found in the rubble of collapsed schools, were mounted and colour co-ordinated to spell out: “She lived happily on this Earth for seven years” in Chinese characters).

Ai’s career has already fuelled a high-profile BBC documentary, Ai Weiwei: Without Fear or Favour (2010), and there are several overlaps in content, though Klayman’s film benefits from much more extensive access to Ai himself, as well as several caught-on-the-wing encounters with officialdom – a poignantly memorable and amusing highlight involves Ai filming policemen who are in turn filming him eating at a restaurant. Klayman pays much attention to Ai’s extensive use of social media in general and Twitter in particular, and the role that they play in broadcasting his power-mocking stunts worldwide. She was also lucky with her timing: her film was in post-production when Ai’s 81-day disappearance in 2011 (ostensibly over tax anomalies) became a major international scandal, supplying her with a far more potent ending than the authorities’ previous wing-clipping efforts, which had included low-level persecution, police assault and the demolition of his Shanghai studio.

Ai claims that his life and work have become inseparable, and Klayman seems to accept this largely uncritically: though she touches on Ai’s unorthodox domestic arrangements whereby he’s raising a son conceived outside his marriage to fellow artist Lu Qing, she rarely probes too deeply. Similarly, the film superficially skims several potentially fascinating topics, not least the complexity of western-Chinese relations at a time when power balances are decisively shifting, but credit must be given to Klayman for the level of detail achieved in what must have been rather difficult circumstances to shoot a film in. Also, the film’s accessibility and immediacy make up for most analytical shortcomings, especially given the increased need for others to speak on Ai’s behalf as the authorities devise yet more ways of silencing him.

Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (15)

Dir: Alison Klayman; US doc, 2012, 92 mins

Premieres August 30

Playing at Vester Vov Vov & Gentofte Kino